By Katie VloetOctober 5, 2016
The U.S. Department of Justice has awarded the Michigan Innocence Clinic with a nearly $250,000 grant to support the defense of clients who were wrongfully convicted of shaken baby syndrome (SBS).
The University of Michigan Law School clinic plans to use two-year grant funding for two purposes: hiring an off-site consultant to serve as the clinic's SBS fellow, and retaining experts required to properly evaluate and litigate cases involving SBS-related evidence.
The Innocence Clinic took its first two SBS cases in late 2009, and achieved its first SBS exoneration in 2010 when client Julie Baumer was retried and found not guilty. The clinic since has filed post-conviction applications for relief in state and federal court in several more SBS cases.
SBS is a general medical diagnosis often used to convict defendants, mostly parents or caregivers, of child abuse based on the presence of certain medical symptoms. Research in recent decades has suggested that the impact of these allegedly "tell-tale" symptoms has been misunderstood and potentially misused in some criminal cases. Many of the same symptoms once thought to be necessarily indicative of abuse have since been found to have many non-abuse causes. Innocence Clinic director David Moran and assistant director Imran Syed have both published law review articles addressing the shift in SBS-related science.
A major 2015 Michigan Supreme Court decision in an SBS case partly inspired the Innocence Clinic to seek funding for an SBS fellow. In People v. Ackley, a unanimous decision authored by former Michigan Law professor Bridget McCormack, the state Supreme Court made clear that SBS remains a controversial diagnosis, and defendants have the right to present favorable experts at trial. Syed stated that the decision was groundbreaking, and made it newly possible for an entire category of potentially innocent people to seek relief. It also deepened the Innocence Clinic's focus on SBS cases.
"We have been able to accomplish a lot on behalf of our few SBS clients to this point, but with a dozen or so potentially promising cases now on our radar, we simply don't have the capacity to handle these cases without some specialized help," says Syed, a clinical assistant professor of law and assistant director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.
"These cases involve a great deal of scientific testimony, reports, and research. That requires considerable time and effort to evaluate and litigate properly."
In January 2016 alone, for example, the clinic identified 11 additional inmates who had been convicted on potentially flawed SBS evidence, and mailed out applications to those 11 people. Once received, the applications are being evaluated to determine whether discredited science was used and whether the inmate presents a viable innocence claim. If so, the cases will be investigated further, a long process that involves consultations with a variety of experts in order to identify wrongful convictions involving SBS.
The grant was awarded through the Justice Department's Wrongful Conviction Review Program. Read more here.
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