Early on the morning of June 27, 1998, in St. Petersburg, Florida, 18-year-old John Peel and his girlfriend were sleeping in a twin bed with their 2-month-old son, John Jr. At around 4:30 a.m., the baby began to cry. Peel got up and fed him, then got back into bed and fell asleep with the baby lying on his chest. When the couple woke up later that morning, their son was lying on the tile floor, dead. Peel was arrested and brought in for questioning; he claimed the baby had fallen out of the bed while he was sleeping. He was charged with first-degree murder the next day.
Dr. Joan Wood, then the medical examiner of Pinellas and Pasco Counties, had conducted the autopsy and concluded that the death was a homicide caused by “closed head injury – child abuse” as evidenced by bleeding in the brain and in the eyes. According to Wood, 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.
Peel maintained his innocence, but in December 2000, he pled no-contest to a lesser manslaughter charge in order to avoid a possible life sentence. Meanwhile, Dr. Wood had become the subject of increasing controversy over errors in her autopsy reports. In a high-profile case, she initially implicated the Church of Scientology in the death of one of its members, but changed the cause of death to “accident” just a few months before the trial, stunning prosecutors and leading to her forced resignation as medical examiner in 2000. At the request of State Attorney Bernie McCabe, medical experts then began to review Dr. Wood’s medical reports in other criminal cases. Among other questionable cases, experts found that in 1999, Dr. Wood had wrongly claimed that 7-month-old Rebecca Long was violently shaken to death, leading to the murder charges against her father, David Long. A review by the new county medical examiner concluded that the baby had actually died of pneumonia, and charges against David Long were dismissed in April 2002.
Later that year, a review of the medical evidence against Peel found no sign of the brain and retinal hemorrhaging that Dr. Wood claimed to have seen – nothing at all to indicate that the infant hadn’t fallen off a bed and hit his head, just as Peel had claimed. In a rare move, State Attorney McCabe asked the judge to reverse Peel’s conviction and sentence based on the amended autopsy report. On October 16, 2002, Peel was released.
John Peel and David Long are two of a growing number of people who have been cleared in cases where prosecutors claimed an infant was shaken to death. These two cases involved egregious errors and misconduct on the part of the medical examiner, but recent medical research has cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of Shaken Baby Syndrome itself 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.
- Alexandra Gross