At about 7:40 a.m. on November 14, 2003, James Molineaux dropped off his sons, two-year-old Jaden and one-year-old Nathan, at Abby’s Day Care in Park City, Utah. Three hours later, the center’s owner, 40-year-old Abigail Tiscareno, called 911 and said Nathan was having difficulty breathing.
The boy was taken to a hospital where physicians diagnosed bleeding between the brain and the skull. Surgeons removed the top of his skull to relieve brain swelling, an operation that saved his life. However, the boy suffered severe brain damage.
A pediatrician advised Summit County Sheriff’s investigators that the nature of the injury—internal bleeding with no external signs of injury—indicated that the boy had been injured at the day care center.
That night, Tiscareno was asked to come to the sheriff’s office where she was interrogated for five hours. She denied harming the boy in any way, but faced with repeated accusations, she finally said she had mildly shaken the boy when he failed to respond. She was released at about 2 a.m., but was arrested days later and charged with aggravated assault.
Tiscareno went on trial in October 2004 before a jury in Summit County Third District Court. An expert in Shaken Baby Syndrome as well as the surgeon who operated on the boy testified for the prosecution.
Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a term later coined to describe a condition first articulated in 1971, is said to occur when 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. In 2004, SBS was 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. At that time it was also believed that there could be no “lucid interval” between the shaking and the onset of devastating symptoms, and therefore the shaking must have been done by the child’s last adult caregiver. That diagnosis has since been shown to be erroneous.
Lorie Frasier, a pediatrician who directed the hospital’s Center for Safe and Healthy Families, testified that the boy’s injuries could have only been caused by violent shaking immediately before the boy began to display symptoms of trauma. The surgeon who operated on the boy testified that the blood on the boy’s brain was only hours old. The physician said it was “basically a fresh blood clot.”
Tiscareno testified and denied she harmed the boy.
On October 28, 2004, the jury convicted Tiscareno of second-degree child abuse. She had been free on bond since her arrest and was allowed to remain free while awaiting sentencing. During that time, Tiscareno switched lawyers. Her new lawyer was the attorney who was defending her in a civil lawsuit brought by the parents of the injured boy.
The lawyer reviewed the trial record and discovered that the pathology report had not been turned over to Tiscareno’s trial attorney. The report was located in the hospital’s medical records center and revealed that the boy had suffered bleeding on the brain as much as 11 days prior to the incident.
In January 2005, prior to sentencing, Tiscareno was granted a new trial. She went on trial a second time in May 2005 before a judge who heard the evidence without a jury. On May 27, 2005, the judge acquitted Tiscareno.
– Maurice Possley