Dr. John Plunkett, RIP. He told the truth about bad forensics — and was prosecuted for it.
Like a lot of other doctors, child welfare advocates and forensic specialists, John Plunkett at first bought into the theory of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS). This is the theory that an autopsy on a young, recently deceased child reveals three symptoms — bleeding in the back of the eyes, brain swelling, and bleeding in the subdural space just above the brain — those injuries could only have been caused by violent shaking. The diagnosis gained popularity in the 1990s, then became more common still after the high-profile trial and conviction of British nanny Louise Woodward in 1997.
It’s a convenient diagnosis for prosecutors, in that it provides a cause of death (violent shaking), a culprit (whoever was last with the child before death) and even intent (prosecutors often argue that the violent, extended shaking establishes mens rea.) According to a 2015 survey by The Washington Post and the Medill Justice Project, there were about 1,800 SBS prosecutions between 2001 and 2015, with 1,600 resulting in convictions.
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