Investigation sheds doubt on a 'shaken-baby' murder conviction

December 14, 2012 by Wendy Leopold, Northwestern University

(Medical Xpress)—Based on developments in science and interviews with numerous medical experts, an in-depth investigation by Northwestern University's Medill Innocence Project raises significant questions about the murder conviction of a Chicago-area licensed day care provider in the death of a young child nearly two decades ago.

Published online today (Dec. 11) at www.medillinnocenceproject.org, it is the Medill Innocence Project's first published investigation of a shaken-baby syndrome case.

Pamela Jacobazzi, now 57, is serving a 32-year prison sentence for the death of Matthew Czapski. At the time of her conviction, shaken-baby syndrome was a largely uncontested diagnosis associated with a triad of symptoms: brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding within the eyes. When all three signs were detected, authorities often accused the last caregiver of abuse, believing the symptoms surface instantly and catastrophically.

"In recent years, however, a number of have shown the triad of symptoms may also arise from less sinister causes," said Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project and professor in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Ten undergraduate journalism students in a fall investigative class led by Klein consulted with medical experts, reviewed studies conducted over the past several years and interviewed Jacobazzi's family, neighbors and former clients. They made five requests and obtained thousands of pages of court records, police reports and hospital, pediatric, medical examiner and children and family services documents.

They found:

  • considered proof of child abuse at the time of Jacobazzi's trial are today known to also result from accidental trauma and certain medical conditions. The who diagnosed Matthew in 1994 with "shaken injury" is one of several experts interviewed who now acknowledge that such symptoms may arise from non-abusive causes.
  • Research into the onset of symptoms after brain trauma has raised doubts about how accurately doctors can pinpoint when trauma was inflicted. Recent studies have shown infants can experience a lucid interval—a temporary period of well-being—after suffering a fatal head injury. Experts say Matthew may have developed slow bleeding in his brain that did not become apparent until hours or days later.
  • Biomechanical studies have called into question whether it is physically possible for a person to shake an infant to death. Experts say it was not possible for the 115-pound Jacobazzi to physically shake Matthew, who weighed 21 pounds, to death, especially since his neck and spine were undamaged.
  • Some experts said Matthew's pediatric records, which were not raised at Jacobazzi's trial, indicate he seemed to have suffered from internal bleeding, and a CT scan and slide of brain tissue may have revealed a slow bleed from an old head injury that remained undetected until he was rushed to the hospital on the day he was under Jacobazzi's care.
Jacobazzi was convicted of first-degree murder on May 18, 1999, and is incarcerated at Lincoln Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill. After losing a series of appeals, she is seeking a new trial; an evidentiary hearing is scheduled in May to consider her request.

The Medill Innocence Project is also working to create the nation's first shaken-baby criminal case database available to the public. As increasingly question the traditional understanding of shaken-baby syndrome, the specter arises that parents, nannies, day care providers and others may have been imprisoned, based on medical thinking at the time, for crimes they did not commit.

Explore further: Spinal bleeding with brain injury may suggest abuse in young children

Related Stories

Spinal bleeding with brain injury may suggest abuse in young children

November 8, 2011
A new study found that spinal bleeding is found often in young children who are victims of abusive trauma. The findings support performing complete spine imaging for children undergoing brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) ...

Recommended for you

Group suggests pushing age of adolescence to 24

January 22, 2018
A small group of researchers with the Royal Children's Hospital in Australia is suggesting that it might be time to change the span of years that define adolescence—from the current 10 to 19 to a proposed 10 to 24 years ...

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.