On the evening of June 1, 2000, 18-year-old Drayton Witt dropped off his girlfriend, Maria Holt, at a restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, where she worked as a waitress. Her son Steven, almost five months old, was asleep in the car seat.
Steven’s life had been fraught with medical problems from birth, when he was delivered with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He was a “blue baby,” had aspirated fecal matter and suffered from respiratory problems.
He had been in and out of doctors’ offices repeatedly and after he was prescribed medicine for flu-like symptoms, he began to suffer seizures. The first seizure resulted in a six-day hospital stay in May, 2000.
Though Steven was not his biological child, Witt cared for him as if he were his own son.
Not long after dropping Holt off, Witt called her and said Steven appeared to have suffered another seizure. Witt put the baby back in the car and picked up Holt, and they began the six-mile drive to Paradise Valley Hospital. En route, Steven stopped breathing. Witt got into the back seat and began performing CPR while Holt got behind the wheel and drove them to the hospital.
The baby arrived at the hospital in cardiac arrest, but was revived—after 30 minutes. In critical condition, Steven was flown to Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Holt and Witt drove home to get some clothes and then went straight to the hospital.
In the early morning hours of June 2, police began questioning both of them about the baby’s condition, apparently prompted by a physician’s suspicion that the baby’s symptoms, which included retinal bleeding, suggested a non-accidental head trauma.
A physician’s report from about 7 a.m. that morning said the baby appeared to be a victim of Shaken Baby Syndrome.
Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a term 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, indicate that the child has been violently shaken. According to received medical wisdom, 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.
Steven was declared brain-dead that afternoon and when life support was removed, he died in Holt’s arms.
When the couple finally decided to leave the hospital, their car was gone from the parking lot. Police had seized it to look for evidence.
After getting a ride home from friends, they found police, armed with a search warrant, had already been there for hours searching for evidence.
Witt was indicted for Steven’s murder in November 2000.
He went on trial in Maricopa County Superior Court in February 2002.
The prosecution presented medical testimony from doctors at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and from the physician who performed the autopsy. All concluded that Steven had the triad of SBS symptoms—subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhages and cerebral edema. Though there were no cuts, bruises, grip marks, fractures, dislocations or spinal injuries, they concluded that the baby had been fatally injured by a violent shaking.
The defense called a medical expert who said the cause of the baby’s death could have been severe dehydration. The expert admitted, however, that the baby’s condition supported a finding of SBS.
On February 26, 2002, after a 10-day trial, a jury convicted Witt of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The conviction was upheld on appeal. While in prison, Witt was attacked by other inmates, incurring dozens of stab wounds. Holt stood by him and they were married in 2006.
In 2008, the Arizona Justice Project began re-examining Witt’s case. Ultimately, eight different experts reviewed the case and provided testimony that supported Witt’s innocence.
In February, 2012, a state petition seeking a new trial was filed outlining how the triad of SBS symptoms, once considered solid evidence, had come into serious question.
Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch, a British pediatric neurosurgeon who authored the seminal paper on SBS, acknowledged that aspects of SBS were now “open to serious doubt” and that a diagnosis of SBS as cause of death in Witt’s case was “inappropriate.”
Dr. Patrick Barnes, chief of pediatric neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine, concluded that the medical records suggested a “classic picture of venous thrombosis” with no indicators of non-accidental trauma. He ruled out SBS, as did other experts, including a biomechanics expert, an ophthalmologist, a pediatric neuropathologist and two forensic pathologists.
The condition of venous thrombosis was not considered by the doctors at Phoenix Children’s Hospital at the time of Steven’s death.
Dr. A. L. Mosley, the physician from the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office who performed Steven’s autopsy in 2000 and testified at Witt’s trial, also re-examined the case. He then signed a sworn affidavit saying that based upon his review of post-2000 SBS literature, “as well as the significant developments in the medical and scientific community’s understanding of SBS and several of the conditions that mimic its symptoms, I have determined that I cannot stand by my previous conclusion and trial testimony that Steven Witt’s death was a homicide.”
Mosley said, “If I were to testify today, I would state that I believe Steven’s death was likely the result of a natural disease process, not SBS.”
In April 2012, the Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office said they would not oppose the motion for a new trial and the motion was granted on May 1. However, the state did oppose Witt’s release pending a new trial. Nonetheless, Witt was released on May 31, 2012. On October 29, 2012, the charges were dismissed.
– Maurice Possley