On May 5, 1999, Brandy Briggs found her 2-month-old baby Daniel Lemons limp, barely breathing and unconscious at her home in Highlands, Texas. She called 911 and the baby was rushed to the hospital, where doctors inserted a breathing tube. On May 9, the baby died at the hospital, in his mother’s arms.
The autopsy was performed by Harris County forensic pathologist Dr. Patricia Moore, who determined the cause of death to be “craniocerebral trauma with complications.” According to Dr. Moore, this was a clear case of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a term said to describe a situation in which an infant is violently shaken, causing severe and potentially deadly brain injury. SBS supposedly involves a tell-tale “triad” of symptoms – brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging and retinal hemorrhaging – and until recently, it was believed that no other injuries or pathologies could cause these three symptoms to occur at the same time. It was also believed that a victim of SBS became unresponsive immediately, meaning that the last person to have physical care of the baby was very likely to have caused the injuries.
Based on Dr. Moore’s autopsy report, Briggs was arrested and charged with first-degree felony injury to a child. Briggs always maintained her innocence, but her attorney said Briggs couldn’t afford the cost of experts who could refute the medical examiner’s testimony. At her attorney’s urging, on the eve of her trial, Briggs pled guilty to a lesser charge of child endangerment. Briggs said her attorney had told her that she would get probation if she accepted this plea bargain. Instead, she was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
In February 2002, Briggs’s motion for a new trial was denied by the Texas Court of Appeals, 1st District.
Briggs’s appellate lawyers then asked two pediatricians to examine the cause of the baby’s death, and both concluded that he had died from complications related to a urinary tract infection contracted shortly after birth. Meanwhile, Harris County’s chief medical examiner criticized Dr. Moore’s “defective and improper work” and her bias towards police and prosecutors in infant death cases. Dr. Moore left Harris County to work in Florida. In July 2004, the new medical examiner, Dr. Louis Sanchez, reviewed Dr. Moore’s work in the Briggs case and found no evidence of SBS or any other form of abuse. Dr. Sanchez also learned that when Briggs’s baby was brought to the hospital, medical personnel had mistakenly inserted the breathing tube into his stomach instead of his lung, leaving him without oxygen for 40 minutes. Dr. Sanchez changed the cause of death to asphyxia.
Briggs’s attorneys filed a motion for a writ of habeas corpus, and on December 14, 2005, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the motion, finding that Briggs had received ineffective representation by her trial lawyer. Briggs’s conviction was vacated. She was released on December 24 on $20,000 bail while the state decided whether or not to retry the case. All charges against Briggs were finally dropped in September 2006.
Briggs is one of a growing number of people who have been exonerated in cases where prosecutors claimed an infant was shaken to death. Briggs’s case is unique in that it involves egregious errors and misconduct on the part of the medical examiner and hospital staff, but recent medical research has cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of Shaken Baby Syndrome as a cause of death. Many experts have 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 is also increasing evidence that other injuries can produce the diagnostic “triad” of symptoms that is said to prove SBS, and mounting evidence that an infant who is suffering from these symptoms would not necessarily become unresponsive right away.
- Alexandra Gross