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Letha Jean Hockersmith

Other Shaken Baby Syndrome Cases
On May 17, 1992, 31-year-old Letha Jean Hockersmith took her adopted two-year-old daughter, Megan, to a Tulsa, Oklahoma hospital. She said the girl had fallen two days earlier in their home in Sand Springs, Oklahoma.

Three weeks later, on June 5, 1992, Megan died of respiratory failure.

A Tulsa County medical examiner said he found evidence of retinal hemorrhaging and bleeding that caused the girl’s brain to swell, indicative of Shaken Baby Syndrome. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.

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 March 1993, Letha Jean and her husband, Terry, were charged with first degree murder. The murder charge against Terry Hockersmith was dismissed by prosecutors shortly thereafter.

Letha Jean went on trial in the spring of 1994 and prosecution medical experts said that Megan had died after being severely shaken. The defense called medical experts who testified that the girl’s injuries were consistent with an accidental fall.

Letha Jean testified that she had a disability known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy in her left arm that left her incapable of violently shaking the child.

On April 18, 1994, the jury convicted her and she was sentenced to life in prison.

In 1996, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction because the trial judge had given erroneous instructions on the meaning of willfulness to the jury.

Letha Jean was released on bond and went on trial a second time in Tulsa County District Court in May 1999. The prosecution again presented medical testimony that the child’s injuries were the result of being violently shaken.

By that time, Letha Jean, who changed her last name to Simon, had divorced her husband, Terry. Her defense attorney, Donn Baker, presented evidence that Terry Hockersmith violently beat their older child, a five-year-old girl. Baker suggested that Megan’s injuries were the result of similar abuse meted out by Terry, whom Baker said had a volatile temper. Terry was called by the prosecution and denied injuring the child.
Baker also presented the evidence of Letha Jean’s disability, although the prosecution presented evidence that she had the strength to pick up the child, carry the child and bathe her.

On May 25, 1999, after a six-day trial, Letha Jean Hockersmith was acquitted by a jury. No charges were subsequently filed against Terry Hockersmith.
– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/8/2013
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1992
Age at the date of reported crime:31
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No