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Sean Ralston

Other Shaken Baby Syndrome Cases
On October 5, 1984, 18-year-old Sean Ralston, a U.S. Army private first class and his wife, Robin, brought their three-month-old son, Bryan, into Cutler Army Hospital at Fort Devens, in Ayer, Massachusetts, because the baby was not breathing.

By the time they arrived, the baby was dead. An emergency room physician told the couple that he believed the baby had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and that there was nothing they could have done.

A week later, police in Townsend, where the couple lived, questioned the emergency room physician, Dr. Gary R. Cohen, who was a third-year resident, about a dark mark on the baby’s back, and froth in his throat. Cohen told police the dark mark was a normal result of blood pooling and that the frothy material was epinephrine that he had administered. Police asked him about Shaken Baby Syndrome, but Cohen told the police he had not heard of the syndrome.

After the baby was buried in Missouri, where family members lived, Ralston reported to Fort Leonard Wood for further interrogation. Army investigators questioned Ralston while a Massachusetts state trooper and a Townsend police officer looked on. As the interrogation wore on, Ralston was asked, “Do you believe that by shaking your baby, the baby was injured and the injury caused the baby to die?”

When Ralston said, “Yes,” he was arrested. A Middlesex County, Massachusetts grand jury indicted Ralston on a charge of manslaughter on Dec. 4, 1984.

Ralston remained free on bail while the case dragged on for years. He went on trial in March 1989—nearly five years after the baby died. Dr. Edward B. Sussman, chief of pathology at Worcester City Hospital, testified that he had conducted an autopsy and determined that the baby had died blunt trauma due to severe shaking. Sussman said the baby was a victim of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).

Shaken Baby Syndrome, later re-christened Abusive Head Trauma, was first described in 1971. SBS was said to occur when an infant is shaken so hard that the brain rotates inside the skull, causing severe and potentially deadly brain injury, often with no external signs of harm.

SBS was said to involve a telltale “triad” of symptoms—brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging and retinal hemorrhaging—which, when present in an infant, indicate that the child has been violently shaken. According to accepted medical wisdom at the time, no other injuries or pathologies could cause these three symptoms to occur simultaneously, and—because it was believed that a victim of SBS became unresponsive immediately—the last person to have physical care of the baby must have caused the injuries. Research has since shown that these symptoms can be caused by other traumas such as short falls, or by a variety of physiological conditions, and that the symptoms might not appear until hours, days or even weeks later.

Prior to trial, the defense attempted to bar evidence of Ralston’s statement that he shook the baby, but the motion was denied and the jury heard testimony about his admission.

Ralston’s defense lawyer called two expert witnesses to rebut Sussman’s findings, but the testimony was—according to a later finding by the trial judge—confusing, disorganized and ineffective.

On March 8, 1989, a jury convicted Ralston of involuntary manslaughter and he was sentenced to 10 to 15 years in prison.

Ralston obtained new defense lawyers who re-investigated the case and retained new experts to examine the evidence.

One of the three specialists, Dr. Marie Valdes-Dapena, a specialist in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, said that Sussman, who performed the autopsy on the baby, “was clearly wrong in his conclusions that the cause of death in this case was blunt trauma as a result of severe shaking.”

Another defense expert, Dr. Lawrence Harris, an infant pathologist, said that Sussman was “grossly mistaken in his interpretation of the data in this case.”

And Dr. Nina Hollander, a specialist on Shaken Baby Syndrome, concluded after reviewing the medical reports: “Bryan K. Ralston did not die as result of blunt trauma. Bryan K. Ralston died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.”

The defense also presented a sworn affidavit from Dr. Gary Cohen, the emergency room physician who saw the baby the night Ralston and his wife brought him to the hospital. Cohen said the baby’s body bore no bruises and the child was “well nourished.” In his opinion, the baby died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

In December 1991, based on the findings of the defense experts, Judge Elizabeth Dolan granted Ralston a new trial and ordered him released on bond. The judge cited Ralston’s trial attorney for failing to fully investigate the case. The judge found “serious incompetency and inefficiency of trial counsel that falls measurably below that which might be expected from an ordinary fallible lawyer.”

The judge also ruled that “the (autopsy) technique employed by Dr. Sussman . . . was distinctly unorthodox, incorrect and improper.”

On June 15, 1992, the prosecution dismissed the charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/25/2014
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1984
Sentence:10 to 15 years
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No