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Teresa Engberg-Lehmer

Other Shaken Baby Syndrome Cases
On the evening of April 4, 1997, Teresa Engberg-Lehmer fed her three-month-old son, Jonathan, and put him to sleep on a blanket around 7:30 p.m. in a back bedroom of their home in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Teresa, 24, and her husband, Joel Lehmer, 32, then went to bed until 11:15 p.m. when she got up to make coffee for Joel. Joel arose and went to work, delivering bundles of newspapers. After he left, Teresa went to check on Jonathan and found him cold and unresponsive. Emergency personnel were summoned and the baby was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at 12:28 a.m. on Saturday, April 5.
On Sunday, April 6, Dr. Thomas Bennett, the Iowa State Medical Examiner, performed an autopsy and declared the child’s death a homicide. The cause, Bennett said, was Shaken Baby Syndrome.  Jonathan, he concluded, had been violently shaken to death by one or both of his parents.

Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) is a term coined to describe a condition first articulated in 1971. SBS is said to arise 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. SBS is said to involve a telltale “triad” of symptoms—brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging, and retinal hemorrhaging. When present in an infant who has no outward signs of abuse, this triad of symptoms indicates that the child has been violently shaken. According to prevailing medical wisdom at the time of the incident, no other injuries or pathologies could cause these three symptoms to occur at the same time. Moreover, it was thought that a victim of SBS became unresponsive immediately, and therefore the last person to have physical care of the baby must have caused the injuries.
In July 1997, the couple, who insisted they never shook the baby, were both charged with first-degree murder. Faced with the medical evidence and the potential of 50 years to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder, they entered Alford pleas—meaning they maintained their innocence, but acknowledged the prosecution had evidence sufficient to obtain a conviction—to involuntary manslaughter on October 2, 1997. They each were sentenced to 15 years in prison.
On November 14, 1997, Teresa wrote a letter to attorney Stephen Brennecke asking him to examine the case. Brennecke had successfully defended another Shaken Baby Syndrome case in March of that year.  The defendant in that case, Mary Weaver, was accused of killing Melissa Mathes, an 11-month-old girl for whom she was babysitting. She was acquitted at her third trial (the first ended in a hung jury and the second ended in a conviction that was reversed) when Brennecke uncovered medical evidence that the child died of a skull fracture inflicted days before her death. The Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis in that case had also been made by Bennett.
Brennecke sent the case file to Dr. Peter Stephens, an Iowa City pathologist, who studied the records and concluded there was no evidence of shaken baby syndrome. The child had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Stephens concluded.
Stephens’ report was given to Pottawattamie County Attorney Rick Crowl, who then sent the file to Dr. Jerry Jones, an Omaha forensic pathologist. Jones agreed with Stephens—there was no evidence the baby had been shaken.
On the evening of September 24, 1998, hours after receiving Jones’ report, Crowl called Iowa District Court Judge Timothy O’Grady and requested a hearing the following day. Attorneys for Joel and Teresa were summoned, although Brennecke was out of the country. Crowl did not want to wait.
At the hearing, Jones testified to his findings and the judge was informed that Stephens concurred. Crowl then made a motion to vacate the convictions and to dismiss the charges.
O’Grady granted the motion after a 63-minute hearing.
Teresa and Joel were released from prison on September 28, 1998.
Bennett resigned as medical examiner two weeks after the couple pled guilty in October 1997 amid an investigation of the administration of his office. Meanwhile, at least two other Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnoses made by Bennett had come under fire. In one case, the prosecution, faced with contradictory evidence, declined to bring charges. In the other, the prosecution dismissed the case almost immediately after the trial began.
– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/29/2012
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1997
Sentence:15 years
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No