Readers of this website with be all too familiar with the attacks on the scientific competence and reputation of Professor Tim Noakes in South Africa (1). Recently, I listened to a radio broadcast about Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), also referred to as abusive head trauma (AHT) or non-accidental head injury (NAHI) that has a number of striking parallels. This encouraged me to do some digging and as a result I have written this series of blogs.
When a baby dies with injuries to the brain the question, the possibility arises that this may have been deliberately caused by a parent or guardian abusing the child by violent shaking. Alternatively it may have been due to a disease or an accidental fall. Obviously it is crucial to reach the correct decision on what happened and why. A wrong conclusion can result in guilty parties not being punished and even worse innocent people being convicted.
There is no doubt that it is difficult to reach the right decision. When there is a prosecution, the courts are critically dependent on the input of expert witnesses. In the UK, Dr. Waney Squier, a noted neuropathologist, has acted in this capacity for many years. This is the story.
In a trial of Lorraine Harris during 2000, Dr. Squier acted as a prosecution witness and testified that Harris’s son Patrick died as a result of abusive treatment by his mother. Consequently she was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Subsequently Dr. Squiers learned of research by Dr. Jennian Geddes who discovered that injuries associated with SBS can actually occur naturally. Dr. Geddes proposed that there should be direct evidence that a baby had suffered physical trauma to confirm that SBS had occurred.
This finding raised doubts with Dr. Squier. She commented:
“A light went on in my head. I became concerned that the whole basis for shaking was poor” (2).
She then conducted a review of evidence she had presented on behalf of the Harris prosecution. As a result she changed her position and prepared a report for Harris in which she stated that she now believed her testimony at the trial was incorrect because the baby had no physical injury. Therefore it was possible that the baby had died from natural causes. Consequently the Court of Appeal quashed the original Harris conviction.
Until this point, no one had questioned Dr. Squier and she was thought to be a leading professional in the field of SBS. However, the moment that she began to question the theory and speak out on behalf of parents, things began to change.
There were some other expert witnesses who were prepared to act for the defence in similar court cases, which resulted in acquittals. This stimulated a quite remarkable campaign by the authorities, which was described in a presentation by a police officer, Detective Inspector Colin Welsh, from the Metropolitan Police at a conference in Atlanta held in 2010.
The BBC gained access to the notes, which refer to a meeting in 2008 attended by representatives of the police, medical experts and CPS officials at which the “impact and effect of contradictory expert evidence” was discussed.
According to a note by a Seattle-based lawyer Heather Kirkwood, Welsh talked about the failure of a number of high profile SBS prosecutions and stated the number one problem as “defence expert testimony”. The primary cause was that “juries were being confused by defense witnesses.” He recommended intense scrutiny and criticism of experts for the defence, and he mentioned his partnership with the National Policing Improvement Agency. In particular, he suggested as tactics to question everything about them – qualifications, employment history, research papers presented by these experts, and even going to their expert bodies “to see if we turn up anything” (3). Welsh is also reported to have referred to “judicial inexperience”, using the term “so deal with back door” apparently in reference to relaying concern to judges about expert witnesses. Kirkwood summed up her views as follows:
“Shortly into the talk, I realized that the ‘national coordinated approach’ referenced in the title of the talk was essentially a description of the joint efforts of New Scotland Yard, prosecution counsel, and prosecution medical experts to prevent Dr. Squier and Dr. [Marta] Cohen from testifying”(4).
At the time the BBC revealed that there had actually been a concerted campaign of what can only be described as “dirty tricks” against a number of pathologists.
In 2010, Dr. Squier was investigated by the Human Tissue Authority because of a complaint that she may have retained human tissue, which is a criminal offence. The accusation was found to be without foundation. The complainant was identified as an officer with the Met. D I Welsh was also involved in an inquiry by the General Medical Council (GMC) into Dr. Squier and another pathologist Dr. Marta Cohen. These were both inconclusive according to the BBC.
A third pathologist, Dr. Irene Scheimberg was subject to an inquiry by the Human Tissue Authority following a complaint from a colleague based at Great Ormond Street Hospital. She was also cleared. It later emerged that the complaint was made by Professor Tony Risdon who often acts for prosecution teams. This was based on information from a third party but which he personally could not verify.
According to the BBC, Professor Peter Furness, President of the Royal College of Pathologists, expressed concern about the allegations of a campaign:
“The allegations that there has been a systematic attempt to intimidate people from presenting their honestly held views to a court should be investigated,”
“I would normally suggest that should be investigated by the police, in this case at least some of the allegations it appears the police have been involved in it.
“There are processes for conducting investigations into police activity. It sounds to me from what I’ve been told that those mechanisms should probably be used.
“My concerns about this are as a private citizen not as president of the Royal College of Pathologists. I think anybody who feels the process of justice is being illegitimately subverted ought to feel concerned and ought to try to do something about it.”
It is obvious that Dr. Squier had genuine doubts about here original testimony and showed considerable courage and integrity in conveying these views to the courts. There can be absolutely no justification for the campaign conducted by a police officer, who certainly did not have any relevant expertise support his stance.