A judge last month agreed Johnson deserved to be considered for a
new trial in a case that hinged on the syndrome, a 1970s-era
forensic diagnosis long accepted as sufficient to convict caretakers
accused of harming and even killing babies.
Appeals such as Johnson's are occurring with greater frequency at
both the federal and state level, said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a
Northwestern University law professor who wrote a book on the
subject. But legal bids to reverse guilty verdicts are long and
grueling, the outcome far from guaranteed, Tuerkheimer said.
"Criminal convictions are final, and science moves on," she said.
"Abusive head trauma" - a newer, broader term - is the leading cause
of fatal child abuse in the United States, according to the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and conviction rates are
higher than for other violent crimes.
Of 1,800 resolved cases since 2001, roughly 1,600 resulted in
convictions, the Washington Post reported in 2015 after a year-long
Because the accused are typically trusted caregivers or parents, the
consequences of a wrongful conviction are especially devastating,
not only for defendants but for their children and spouse.
"We are shredding families," said Seattle-based lawyer Heather
Kirkwood, who has filed appeals on behalf of several people
convicted in such cases.
For decades, pathologists, pediatricians and courts recognized a
distinct set of internal head injuries - brain swelling, bleeding on
the surface of the brain and behind the eyes – as proof of death by
deliberate shaking, even in the absence of other overt signs of
But medical consensus has shifted in recent years and research now
shows such injuries can be caused by accidental falls from a short
height, or even medical conditions such as blood-clotting disorders
and latent trauma from a difficult birth, which can manifest weeks
NEW MEDICAL EXPERT OPINION
Johnson, now 71, remains in prison while her bid for exoneration is
pending. Defense lawyer Alissa Bjerkhoel said she is hopeful
prosecutors will ultimately concede the case.
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The San Diego County District Attorney declined to comment while the
case is under appeal.
Sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for causing injuries that
killed 6-month-old Jasmine Miller in June 1997, Johnson insisted the
baby suddenly collapsed hours after an accidental fall from a high
Jurors, however, accepted prosecutors' explanation, backed by
several medical experts, that the child died from violent shaking
and a blow to the head deliberately inflicted by Johnson in a fit of
rage over the baby's crying.
In their petition to overturn the conviction, however, Johnson's
lawyers presented new medical expert opinion that the baby was
probably badly hurt by slipping out of her high chair, damage likely
compounded by latent head injuries the infant presumably had
suffered in a previous accidental fall from her parents' bed weeks
before she died.
They also introduced the fact, not presented at trial, that
paramedics trying to revive Jasmine forced a breathing tube down the
baby's esophagus rather than her windpipe, an error that likely
contributed to or ensured her death.
Citing declarations from doctors that key medical testimony "is now
considered unsupported," San Diego County Superior Court Judge Jay
Bloom on Jan. 4 ordered prosecutors to show why the guilty verdict
should remain intact.
He gave them until early February to contest Johnson's petition,
after which her attorneys could file a response and the judge would
likely set a hearing in the matter.
If the defense prevails in reversing the conviction, under
California law, prosecutors could seek to retry Johnson.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sara Catania, Dina Kyriakidou
and Paul Simao)
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