Robert Roberson was set for lethal injection June 21 for the “shaken baby syndrome” death of his 2-year old daughter in Texas. Image source from NBC DFW.

by Christina England
Health Impact News

Last week, we reported that Chief Justice Ralph Gants from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had ordered a re-trial in the case of Oswelt Millien, a young father, who in 2015 was jailed for 4-5 years for causing permanent injuries to his six-month old daughter, Jahanna.

This week yet another case, this time in Texas, has hit the news.

On 17th June, 2016, Reuters reported that:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Thursday halted the planned June 21 execution of Robert Roberson and sent his case back to trial court. It based its decision on a recent state law that permits legal challenges citing new scientific evidence potentially pointing to wrongful convictions. (own emphasis added)

In 2002, Robert Roberson was convicted for the murder of his two-year old daughter, Nikki Curtis. Although experts at the time had testified that the toddler had died of Shaken baby syndrome–a syndrome defined by brain swelling, bleeding behind the eyes and bleeding on the brain’s surface–Roberson had always denied that he had hurt his daughter and maintained that Nikki’s injuries may have been caused by a fall from her bed or a fever of 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit. (40.3 degrees Centigrade)

Reuters continued, by explaining that Shaken baby syndrome can be caused by short falls, other undiagnosed medical conditions, such as blood clotting disorders and latent trauma from a difficult birth. They stated that lawyers had pointed out that it is impossible to shake a child to death without causing serious neck injuries which they said that the child did not have. They concluded that:

Robert Roberson was wrongly convicted of murdering his … daughter based on ‘junk science’ and highly inflammatory sexual-abuse allegations that were false.

This is a landmark case and may lead to other innocent prisoners that are awaiting execution to be awarded a reprieve.

Fatal Short Fall Injuries and Shaken Baby Syndrome

In 2001, Dr. John Plunkett, M.D., wrote a paper published by the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, entitled Fatal Pediatric Head Injuries Caused by Short Distance Falls discussing whether or not it is possible for a short distance fall to kill a child and if so, whether the child could have a period of lucidness before dying.

In his paper, Dr. Plunkett discussed eighteen cases where children had died after short fall injuries. The children ranged between 12 months and 13 years and had all fallen distances ranging from 22 inches or 0.6 metres to 2 feet 10 inches or 3 metres. All of the children had fallen onto a range of different surfaces and all died as a result of their falls. Plunkett concluded that:

  1. Every fall is a complex event. There must be a biomechanical analysis for any incident in which the severity of the injury appears to be inconsistent with the history. The question is not ‘Can an infant or child be seriously injured or killed from a short-distance fall?’ but rather ‘If a child falls (x) meters and strikes his or her head on a non-yielding surface, what will happen?’
  2. Retinal hemorrhage may occur whenever intracranial pressure exceeds venous pressure or whenever there is venous obstruction. The characteristic of the bleeding cannot be used to determine the ultimate cause.
  3. Axonal damage is unlikely to be the mechanism for lethal injury in a low-velocity impact such as from a fall.
  4. Cerebrovascular thrombosis or dissection must be considered in any injury with apparent delayed deterioration, and especially in one with a cerebral infarct or an unusual distribution for cerebral edema.
  5. A fall from less than 3 meters (10 feet) in an infant or child may cause fatal head injury and may not cause immediate symptoms. The injury may be associated with bilateral retinal hemorrhage, and an associated subdural hematoma may extend into the interhemispheric fissure. A history by the caretaker that the child may have fallen cannot be dismissed.

It appears from the report, that the possibility of a short fall injury was not discussed at Roberson’s original trial.

Mr. Roberson is Not Alone

Evidence showing, that more and more cases of men are being falsely accused of Shaken baby syndrome after their child has suffered a short fall injury, is coming to light, and Dr. John Plunkett is not the only professional to have become concerned.

Biomechanic, Dr. John Lloyd, has also become increasingly concerned. In a short three-minute video, Dr. Lloyd discussed the facts surrounding short falls and subsequent brain injuries in a little more detail, explaining how different flooring can determine how hard a child’s head is likely to bounce.