By Katie VloetOctober 6, 2016
Julie Baumer's nightmare began when she tried to do the right thing: Take in her nephew, whom her sister couldn't raise, and adopt him so that she could keep him in the family and give him a good life. She was in her 20s, a successful mortgage broker, and she instantly fell in love with baby Phillipp.
Before the adoption process could be completed, Phillipp—who had had a complicated birth—became ill at six weeks old. He wouldn't eat, and Baumer knew something was seriously wrong. She took him to the hospital. Physicians determined Phillipp had massive brain injuries, and that Baumer must have shaken the infant.
In the blur of activities that followed, Phillipp was taken from her care, and she was charged with shaking the boy. Her attorney would not bring in a radiologist to examine the baby's brain scans, so the opinions of the prosecution experts were not challenged. She was found guilty based largely on the testimony of two physicians who testified for the prosecution, saying that the baby must have been shaken for the injuries to have occurred. Phillipp was sent to live with adoptive parents, and she has not seen him since.
Baumer recounted her ordeal in a talk to Michigan Law students this week. She said she will always be grateful to the nun who visited her in prison and took her case to Ave Maria Law School, and to the attorneys at the Michigan Innocence Clinic who ultimately took on her case in collaboration with other lawyers.
If she hadn't been a Michigan fan previously, she joked, "I would happily be one now."
Her legal team won Baumer a new trial, where six prominent physicians who had examined the brain scans all agreed that the baby suffered a type of stroke called a venous sinus thrombosis (VST), which can have symptoms similar to shaken baby syndrome.
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.
In October 2010, Baumer was acquitted. She still is readjusting to life on the outside. "Sometimes it feels like yesterday, sometimes it feels like a hundred years ago," she says of her exoneration.
It hasn't been easy. "I essentially had to start from scratch," she said. "It was like bringing myself back from the dead."
She was sent out of prison wearing a shirt and baggy jeans from the lost and found, with an image of Fat Albert on the back pockets. Baumer was homeless for a short time while she struggled to reestablish her identity after so many lost years. She currently is working as an office manager at a church office in metro Detroit, but she is resigning at the end of the year after four years and returning to college to finish her undergraduate degree in criminal law in hopes of obtaining a future position in a sector that deals with prison reform and/or innocence projects. She published her first novel, An Undeserved Sentence, in 2012.
Since her exoneration, Baumer has advocated about and raised awareness of wrongful convictions. She wants people to understand that the system can be flawed, and that wrongful convictions occur—something she didn't understand before her own ordeal.
"I had complete faith in the justice system," Baumer said. "They're experts; why would they get it wrong?"
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