Every year, more than 2,000 hospitalized children in the U.S. are diagnosed with abusive head trauma (AHT), also known as shaken baby syndrome. Since the 1970s, when scientists first posited that shaking a baby could cause serious and sometimes fatal brain damage, prosecutors have used the diagnosis to charge over 3,000 people with abuse or murder, most of them parents or caregivers, according to a database of cases through 2015 from the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University. Over 200 defendants have been sentenced to life in prison or death.
Yet the medical testimony in a number of these cases has lately come under scrutiny. Questions about the scientific evidence for AHT helped yield five exonerations last year, bringing the known number of wrongful convictions involving AHT to 26 since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In May, California compensated Zavion Johnson for his 16 years in prison after he was exonerated in the death of his infant daughter. Although Mr. Johnson insisted that his daughter hit her head after she accidentally slipped from his arms in the shower, prosecutors used the testimonies of medical experts to convince a jury that he shook her to death. Also in May, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to consider requests for a new trial for Danyel Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly shaking his 2-month-old son to death.