Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Shaken baby diagnosis from biased medical examiner unsubstantiated, new autopsy says

This blog focuses frequently on the subject of dubious forensics like that used in many older arson cases and so-called "scent lineups" performed by dogs. The Houston Chronicle this week published a story on another branch of questionable forensic science: The diagnosis by medical examiners of so called "shaken-baby syndrome," which has resulted in several recent exonerations in Harris County after former associate medical examiner Patricia Moore's work on the subject was discredited. ("New results of autopsy spur plea," Jan. 14)

Most recently, Harris County was compelled to change the autopsy results by the same medical examiner in an 11-year old case after concluding there was no basis for a shaken-baby finding. Reported the Chron:

The original autopsy classified the baby's death as a homicide and was used by prosecutors as a key piece of evidence against Cynthia Cash, now 53, a former nurse convicted of fatal injury to a child after 4-month-old Abbey Clements died after being rushed to the hospital from Cash's home.

But the modified autopsy report made public in a new appeal calls the cause of death “undetermined” and found no evidence of “trauma” in the postmortem exam. Those changes came five years after local officials announced a review of problematic autopsies conducted by a former Harris County associate medical examiner, Dr. Patricia Moore. Moore, who declined requests for comment, left Harris County in 2002 but still works for Southeast Texas Forensic Center, a Conroe-based company that provides forensic work for six counties.

It is at least the fourth time Harris County officials have reclassified a child's autopsy that Moore originally labeled as a homicide. Two women have been cleared in other cases — including Brandy Briggs, who was jailed at 19 after rushing her baby to the hospital and who spent several years in a prison isolation cell before being freed in 2005. Dr. Luis Sanchez, head of the medical examiner's office, did not respond to Chronicle questions about Cash's case or whether he has finished an audit he promised to conduct after finding problems in the Briggs case.

It's particularly disturbing to learn that Moore continues to perform autopsies in Texas criminal cases, making one wonder what quality control mechanisms exist (or should be implemented) to eject incompetent or biased forensic workers from the field.

Over at The Agitator, Radley Balko commented on the case, noting that "In 2004, a statistical analysis showed Moore diagnosed shaken baby syndrome (already a controversial diagnosis) in infant deaths at a rate several times higher than the national average. Roger Koppl and I noted her case in recommending statistical analysis as one way of checking the integrity of state forensic specialists."

Related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Let's see, so far we have DNA exonerations, bad arson science and bogus shaken baby diagnoses. We also have rampant police and prosecutor misconduct. What else are we going to find? I think those numbers in the article about estimating the number of innocent people in prison were probably way, way low.

Karo said...

Don't forget that the art of matching bullets to a specific gun in nowhere near as accurate as the FBI led us to believe.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

True, Karo. Actually the NAS report criticized as subjective and unscientific most of the "comparative" forensics - bullet matching, bite marks, tool marks, etc..

Anonymous said...


Please tell me you are going to post and comment on the CCA's ruling in Charles Dean Hood's capital case.

Anonymous said...

Statewide prison lockdown now in effect.

Karo said...

The CCA ruling was basically that
Hood's claim of an affair between the DA and judge could have been raised previously in a timely application for Habeas Corpus because the factual or legal basis for the claim was available on the date Hood filed the previous application.

Also the evidence was insufficient to find a violation of the United States Constitution occurred which would have prevented a rational jury form finding Hood guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Charlie O said...

Anon: 4:19. Where do you have you information about statewide lockdown? There's nothing on TDCJ website.

Charlie O said...

Just found this. Lockdown is not statewide, but limited to certain units.

Looks like I can go ahead and make my flight on Friday.

Grandmom said...

Information on lockdown at Polunsky: Still on lockdown. The Chaplain evidently mailed a letter for someone, which has caused punishment for everyone: sack lunches for weeks, consisting of a rock-hard, smashed sandwich, no lights during the day - impossible to read - and at night wake up every hour on the hour with bright light in your face. Not to mention, the chaplain got fired.