On October 16, 1995 Cindy Beard left her 7 month-old daughter Natalie at the home of Audrey Edmunds, a stay-at-home mother in Waunakee, Wisconsin, who often babysat for neighborhood families. As Beard mentioned to Edmunds, Natalie was fussy that morning and took only half of her bottle, but otherwise she seemed normal. Edmunds left Natalie with a bottle in the bedroom, and when she returned about a half hour later the baby seemed to be choking and was unresponsive. Edmunds ran to her neighbor’s house and called 911. When police and paramedics arrived, they found the baby with fixed and dilated pupils, taking short breaths. Soon afterwards she stopped breathing and never regained consciousness.
An autopsy revealed extensive brain damage, and a forensic pathologist determined the cause of death to be Shaken Baby Syndrome. The term Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), which was later coined to describe a condition first articulated in 1971, is said to describe a situation in which an infant is shaken so hard that the brain rotates inside the skull, causing severe and potentially deadly brain injury, but often without any external signs of harm. SBS is said to involve a tell-tale “triad” of symptoms – brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging and retinal hemorrhaging – which, when present in an infant who has no outward signs of abuse, definitively indicate that the child has been violently shaken. According to received medical wisdom in 1995, no other injuries or pathologies could cause these three symptoms to occur at the same time, and – because it was believed that a victim of SBS became unresponsive immediately – the last person to have physical care of the baby must have caused the injuries.
On March 19, 1996, Edmunds was charged with first-degree reckless homicide. She turned herself in on March 21, 1996, swearing she was innocent. At her trial, several medical experts testified for the prosecution and said that Natalie ’s death was a hallmark case of SBS, and that given the severity of her injuries, Natalie must have died very soon after the harm was inflicted. Natalie’s medical record included dozens of trips to the doctor, and several days before her death her parents had taken her in for lethargy, irritability and vomiting, which can indicate brain injury.
The prosecution argued that this history was irrelevant because Natalie had clearly been shaken to death, which meant that Edmunds must be guilty. The defense could find just one expert, a pediatric neurologist, to testify that the injuries could have been caused earlier, before Natalie was in Edmunds’s care. Numerous friends and neighbors testified to Edmunds good character, patience, and skill with children, but the jury was not convinced. On November 26, 1996, Edmunds was convicted and sentenced to 18 years.
In 1999 Edmunds’s appeal was denied, as were two subsequent petitions for a new trial. In 2001, she was denied parole despite model behavior, because the parole board found her unrepentant.
In 2003 the Wisconsin Innocence Project took on her case. By then, new medical research had cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Many experts argued that it is physically impossible for such severe brain damage to be caused by shaking alone, without visible injuries to the skull or spine. There was also increasing evidence that other injuries, including short falls and the lingering effects of birth trauma, can produce the diagnostic “triad” of symptoms that is said to prove SBS. And there was mounting evidence that an infant who is suffering from these symptoms would not necessarily become unresponsive right away.
These new finding led the forensic pathologist who had conducted Natalie’s autopsy, Dr. Robert Huntington III, to doubt his earlier testimony. At an evidentiary hearing in 2007, Dr. Huntington testified that he no longer believed that it was clear that Natalie died shortly after being injured. Five other doctors testified on Edmunds’s behalf, and said that neither the cause nor the timing of the injuries that caused Natalie’s death could be determined from the available evidence – but the trial court judge denied the motion for a new trial. However, on January 31, 2008, the Wisconsin 4th District Court of Appeals overturned the conviction in light of the new scientific evidence about SBS, and ordered a new trial. Edmunds was released on bond on February 6, 2008, and on July 11 of that year the prosecution dismissed the charges.
- Alexandra Gross