October 17, 2009
By Jeff Starck
Wausau Daily Herald
At least two Marathon County adults convicted of killing babies stand to be set free from prison as a result of an appeals court ruling in another shaken-baby case.
Prosecutors and doctors said Quentin Louis of Athens killed his 4-month-old daughter, Madelyn, in March 2005. In a separate case, Tammy Millerleile of Wausau was convicted of fatally shaking 14-month-old Jake Mentink in March 2002 while baby-sitting him, according to court records.
Louis was sentenced to 20 years in prison and Millerleile is serving 16 years, both for reckless homicide.
But in August, Marathon County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Howard vacated Louis’ conviction and granted him a new trial based on a ruling that suggests medical evidence in shaken-baby cases is suspect. Prosecutors are appealing the decision to retry the Louis case, but Howard last month also authorized payments for expert witnesses to review Millerleile’s conviction.
Louis’ and Millerleile’s reviews were prompted after a former Madison-area woman convicted in a shaken baby case was freed from prison in 2008. An appeals court ruled she should have a new trial.
The court said new medical information about shaken-baby syndrome called into question the conviction of Audrey Edmunds, and prosecutors elected to dismiss the charges against her after she served 11 years in prison.
Since that landmark decision, courts have been reopening shaken baby cases to examine the evidence that led to convictions, said Keith Findley, a clinical law professor and co-director of the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Wisconsin Innocence Project that worked the Edmunds case.
A paper published last month in the Washington University Law Review said that prosecutors and courts have been slow to adopt new science-based studies that could exonerate those accused and convicted of crimes related to shaken-baby syndrome.
“Guilt is being assigned where the best available science creates, at the very least, reasonable doubt,” DePaul University law professor and former prosecutor Deborah Tuerkheimer said in the paper.
Prosecutors and doctors for years relied on the presence of three injuries — brain swelling and brain and retinal hemorrhaging — as indicators that a baby had been shaken. Findley said doctors and biomechanical engineers now better understand the causes of the brain and eye injuries and there is debate within the medical community over whether shaking a baby can cause death by itself.
“No one wants to protect child abusers, but there are innocent explanations for people who are accused of shaken-baby syndrome in the past,” Findley said.
According to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, between 1,000 and 1,500 children each year in the United States are badly injured or killed after being shaken. Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin reported 28 shaken-baby cases in 2008, and there have been at least seven since 1995 in Marathon County.
Bonny Armstrong, executive director of The Shaken Baby Alliance, disagrees with those who today question the diagnoses and convictions.
“If shaking didn’t hurt children, why do we have so many people with serious or fatal injuries?” said Armstrong, whose daughter suffered serious injuries from being shaken by a relative.
Dr. Robert Reece, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, called the debate “manufactured controversy.” Reece, a member of an advisory board for the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, said there is no new science involved; doctors always have looked for alternative explanations when making diagnoses.
“We know the implications when these things go to court,” Reece said. “We don’t want to make accusations, we make a diagnosis.”
Still, the issue — for Louis, Millerleile and other defendants — must be resolved in the courts.
Marathon County Assistant District Attorney LaMont Jacobson said he would not be surprised if other shaken-baby convictions, local and statewide, are questioned before the matter is resolved.