Decades-old case casts doubt on Shaken Baby Syndrome convictions
Keith Findley says his work is inspired by Audrey Edmunds, a woman who served 11 years for shaking a baby to death before a court ordered her a new trial.
MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - An October morning in Waunakee started with a mother dropping her seven-month-old daughter off at the house of her babysitter. Sadly, that child would not survive the day. Police investigate. They arrest the babysitter who was found guilty of shaking the baby to death and sent her to prison.
This decades-old case has now put forensic science on trial as a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor hopes his research on the topic helps exonerate those whose convictions have ties to Shaken Baby Syndrome.
Thirty-four-year-old Audrey Edmunds, a pregnant mother of two, cherished her work as an at-home babysitter.
“[I] wanted to be a stay at home mom. I lived in a fun neighborhood with a lot of other moms and young kids, and I was really thankful to be able to do that,” says Audrey.
But one day back in 1995, the life she knew would change forever after a 7-month-old baby girl was dropped off for daycare.
“I was informed by her mom that she had been fussy throughout the night. She hadn’t taken her bottle. Her mom didn’t tell me she projectile vomited in her car seat that morning.”
Audrey knew something was very wrong when formula started coming out of the child’s nose. Audrey says the baby became unresponsive.
“I frantically ran out with her, holding her upright, screaming at my neighbor to come help. One of my neighbors came and said you’ve got to call 911. And I did.”
But it was too late. Soon after help arrived, the child was gone, pronounced dead.
“Heart wrenching, still to this day,” remembers Audrey.
Months later, Audrey says she got an unexpected phone call from police. She was being accused of shaking the baby to death.
“It was awful. When I first heard the courts were getting involved, I was so overwhelmed and scared. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong and why they could even get involved. I knew what happened. And when they came down with this shaken baby stuff, I had never even heard of that,” said Audrey.
Doctor after doctor took the stand testifying about injuries found on the child’s brain. The conclusion: the only way the baby’s brain could have been damaged in that specific way was by being violently shaken by the last person to care for her.
“It was horrible to sit there and listen to some of those people talk and try to create a monster,” says Audrey.
Dr. Robert Huntington did the baby’s autopsy. Since Audrey was watching the child during the two hours before her death, a jury found Audrey guilty. A judge sentenced her to 18 years in prison.
“The DA went after blame and not the truth, and that’s the bad thing,” says Audrey.
Keith Findley is a professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School.
“Audrey and her case inspired me to do this,” says Findley.
He’s also the founder of The Wisconsin Innocence Project.
“I’d heard of Shaken Baby Syndrome before, but I had never looked into it. I never had a case involving it, I never had a reason to question it,” says Findley.
Audrey’s case changed not only his thinking, but his career.
“I was at UW hospital for some meeting, and one of the doctors there approached me and said he was very concerned about Audrey’s conviction because he thought some of the testimony provided in that case was erroneous,” recalls Findley.
Findley jumped in to represent her.
“Everything has to be questioned because it turns out it’s wrong an awful lot of the time,” says Findley.
Findley and his students researched and fought the court system for five years, finally arriving at a turning point. The forensic pathologist who testified in Audrey’s trial, Dr. Huntington, decided he may have been wrong.
“We reached out to Dr. Huntington, and we said we wanted to talk to him about Audrey Edmunds. And he said ‘oh, Audrey Edmunds. What are we doing to do about Audrey Edmunds?’ He remembered, and he was troubled by the testimony,” says Findley.
Findley says after Audrey’s conviction, Dr. Huntington examined another baby with similar injuries and determined those injuries could have been caused by a number of things, not just by being shaken within a few hours.
“He said he would no longer testify the way he did. He could no longer be sure there was shaking at at all, and he could no longer say with any certainty as to when whatever happened to her when it happened,” says Findley.
After 11 years torn away from her family by a justice system she calls anything but, Audrey’s conviction was overturned by an appellate court, and she was free.
“Just to hear that word, it still gives me goosebumps,” says Audrey.
Audrey’s friends braved a snow storm to come pick her up that day to make sure she had a ride home back to her kids.
“It was so awesome to be out, to be driving, to be free. Oh man, I can’t tell you it was wonderful. All those years, all those things I thought about that I just waited to do that it was finally, finally coming to fruition. When I called my daughters that night they were so, so happy,” remembers Audrey.
Findley says more people deserve the freedom Audrey felt that day, people who have been wrongly convicted of Shaken Baby Syndrome, some in Wisconsin.
“There are still people behind bars, there are still people being put behind bars,” says Findley.
And others like Audrey are getting out, too.
According to the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University in 2015, prosecutors have used Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnoses to charge at least 3,000 people with abuse or murder. Our national investigates team has uncovered at least 21 people charged with crimes connected to the diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome who have had their convictions overturned since 2019. Why were most of their charges reversed? Evolving science many experts say proves the diagnosis is unreliable.
For decades, traumatic brain injuries in kids could only be explained with blunt force trauma, like car accidents, falls or violently shaking a child. Today new research shows those same injuries can be linked to many illnesses and biological issues like seizures.
“While I tell you the science has changed a whole lot, it has, but the medical community’s response has not changed that much,” says Findley.
With Audrey as motivation, Findley went on to establish the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences, looking at what he calls flawed forensics that produce wrongful convictions. It’s crucial research that will hopefully bring about more justice, crucial research because of someone who knows all too well what it could mean without it.
“Don’t look for blame, look for truth,” says Audrey.
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