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Child Death Cases Repeatedly Mishandled

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Child Death Cases Repeatedly Mishandled

NPR News Investigations

Child Death Cases Repeatedly Mishandled

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This week on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we're bringing you stories of people who face the unimaginable: parents and caregivers who've been wrongly accused of killing young children.

NPR's investigative unit teamed up with PBS "Frontline" and ProPublica, and they analyzed nearly two dozen of these cases. Their investigation found that when a child dies and child abuse is suspected, it can be hard for medical experts or the legal system to get it right.

Today, NPR's Joseph Shapiro looks at cases in Georgia, Florida, Texas and Canada. And we should warn you that some of what you will hear in the next seven minutes is disturbing.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Take the case of Melonie Ware. Her husband, Reggie, drives around Atlanta. He's pointing out some of the houses he once owned, but had to sell quickly to try to get his wife out of prison.

Mr. REGINALD WARE: And this house right here was - this was Melonie's grandmother's house that I bought. They kind of got upset when I sold it.

SHAPIRO: Reggie Ware came up with almost a million dollars to hire attorneys and medical experts. His wife, Melonie, was a day-care provider who was sentenced to life in prison. She was convicted of killing a 9-month-old baby boy by shaking and hitting him. She spent a year in prison and then in 2009, she was acquitted at a second trial.

Those new medical experts the Wares hired showed that the boy died not because Melonie hit him. The cause was sickle cell anemia, which can create bleeding on the brain that looks like the marks of child abuse.

Mr. WARE: When she got locked up, I started searching the Internet and going to different libraries and speaking to different doctors - about like a crash court in college, I guess, of trying to learn about medical science, the new science that was coming out, pediatric sickle-cell.

SHAPIRO: NPR's investigative unit, along with PBS "Frontline" and ProPublica, studied 23 cases in the U.S. and Canada where parents and caregivers were prosecuted for killing children, but where the convictions were later overturned or the charges dropped. One reason is that medical experts are often sharply divided over the science of what causes unexpected child deaths.

Dr. Christopher Milroy is a forensic pathologist in Canada.

Dr. CHRISTOPHER MILROY (Forensic Pathologist): Interestingly enough, we have advanced by knowing we don't know as much as we thought we did. A good example of that is time of death.

SHAPIRO: Until fairly recently, pathologists believed they could pinpoint the time of an injury that caused the death. Usually, that meant the person that was with a child became the automatic suspect. But now, many scientists agree that an injury or a problem can linger for days or weeks before it causes a child to die.

In an apartment in Toronto, Saurob Kumar, who is 20, talks about how he stumbled across a family secret.

Mr. SAUROB KUMAR: One day, like, I was kind of just, I was playing around. And I found a picture of my dad holding a baby. And I didn't know who it was. And so I said, is this another picture of me? And so he's like no. That's someone else. I'm like, who is this?

SHAPIRO: His father explained that the baby in the photograph was Saurob's brother, Gaurov, only the boy died when he was just 5 weeks old. The father was charged with murder.

Dinesh Kumar sits next to his son, Saurob, on a small couch.

Mr. DINESH KUMAR: This is the hardest decision I have in my life.

SHAPIRO: Dinesh Kumar pled guilty to criminal negligence causing death. But he explains he didn't kill his infant son. The medical evidence against him seemed overwhelming. So his lawyers told him to take the deal from prosecutors. He was sentenced to community service, and that allowed Kumar and his wife to keep Saurob, who was then just a year old. Otherwise, Saroub would be placed in foster care, and put up for adoption. That was 1992.

Today, medical experts understand that just because the child went into distress in his father's arms doesn't mean the injury happened at that moment. Now it's thought that Gaurov died from bleeding in the brain due to an injury at birth. This January, a court exonerated Dinesh Kumar. He's one of some half-dozen parents and caregivers who've had convictions thrown out recently in Canada.

Dr. Jon Thogmartin is a medical examiner in Florida.

Dr. JON THOGMARTIN (Medical Examiner): This is the primary autopsy cutting station.

SHAPIRO: Thogmartin gives a tour of the open autopsy room with stainless steel sinks.

Dr. THOGMARTIN: You do the autopsy with the feet on that end, the head on this end. You weigh the organs as they come out, and you dissect the organs there on that board.

SHAPIRO: In 2001, Thogmartin reviewed autopsies by his predecessor, who'd found two children died after being shaken to death. But Thogmartin found those two babies had died from natural causes. One father was then released from prison, and charges were dropped against the other.

Dr. THOGMARTIN: I've had a lot of cases where - of rare deaths: shark attacks, dog attacks, bee stings, lightning strikes. I've seen these many times. I am yet to have to diagnose shaken baby. Do I think you could shake a kid to death? Heck, yeah. I think you can. But I've never seen it.

SHAPIRO: Shaken baby syndrome has been a widely accepted diagnosis for decades. The key is finding three symptoms: bleeding around the brain, bleeding behind the retinas, and brain swelling. Now, a large number of forensic pathologists are questioning the diagnosis.

Some skeptics even say you can't shake a baby with so much force that you cause internal head injuries but leave no external marks - bruises or injuries to the neck or spine. Others, including many pediatricians and those who work to stop child abuse, strongly defend the diagnosis, and say they see its devastation often. They say a young child's brain is soft and easily injured when a child is shaken.

But Dr. Patrick Barnes, a pediatric radiologist, says new technology has changed our understanding.

Dr. PATRICK BARNES (Pediatric Radiologist): When we started using more advanced imaging techniques such as MRI, we started seeing findings that we had previously attributed to abuse or shaking. We started realizing there were a number of medical conditions that can affect a baby's brain, and look like the findings that we used to attribute to shaken baby syndrome or child abuse.

SHAPIRO: Things like infection, vitamin deficiencies, blood disease and clotting problems can mimic signs of child abuse.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

SHAPIRO: When Monea Tyson's 2-year-old son, Jayceon, was rushed to an El Paso hospital, workers there mistakenly concluded that his congenital skin discolorations - known as Mongolian spots - were bruises. Right away, Tyson was suspected of child abuse that killed her son.

Ms. MONEA TYSON: I found out I'm being charged. And you don't know how to take that because you're sitting here grieving for a son that you lost, and then to turn around and find out that you're being charged with capital murder, it's kind of - it's hard for one person, a human being, to take, you know?

SHAPIRO: Her other children were placed in foster care. She spent nearly two years in jail, awaiting a court date. But at trial last November, a pediatric forensic pathologist hired by the defense showed the boy likely died from an infection. Tyson was acquitted. Those jurors felt certain about their decision.

But as medical experts disagree on the science of determining abuse, courts struggle to get the right verdict.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: NPR's investigation continues tonight on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and on PBS "Frontline." You can learn more about these families from our online partner ProPublica and at

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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