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Medill Innocence Project Raises Doubts in a 'Shaken-Baby' Murder Conviction

EVANSTON, Ill., Dec. 11, 2012 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Based on developments in science and interviews with numerous medical experts, an in-depth investigation by the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University raises significant questions about the murder conviction of a Chicago-area licensed day care provider in the death of a young child nearly two decades ago.

This is the Medill Innocence Project's first published investigation of a shaken-baby syndrome case, published today at www.medillinnocenceproject.org.

Pamela Jacobazzi, now 57, is serving a 32-year prison sentence for the death of Matthew Czapski. At the time of her conviction, shaken-baby syndrome was a largely uncontested diagnosis associated with a triad of symptoms: brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding within the eyes. When all three signs were detected, authorities often accused the last caregiver of abuse, believing the symptoms surface instantly and catastrophically.

But a number of medical studies in recent years have shown the triad of symptoms may also arise from less sinister causes.

Ten undergraduate journalism students in a fall investigative class led by Prof. Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project, consulted with numerous medical experts and studies conducted over the past several years, interviewed Jacobazzi family members, neighbors and former clients, submitted five Freedom of Information Act requests and obtained thousands of pages of court records, police reports as well as hospital, pediatric, medical examiner, children and family services and property documents. They found:

  • Eye injuries considered proof of child abuse at the time of Jacobazzi's trial are today known to also result from accidental trauma and certain medical conditions. The ophthalmologist who diagnosed Matthew in 1994 with "shaken injury" is one of several experts interviewed who now acknowledge that such symptoms may arise from non-abusive causes.
  • Research into the onset of symptoms after brain trauma has raised doubts about how accurately doctors can pinpoint when trauma was inflicted. Recent studies have shown infants can experience a lucid interval–a temporary period of well-being–after suffering a fatal head injury. Experts say Matthew may have developed slow bleeding in his brain that did not become apparent until hours or days later.
  • Biomechanical studies have called into question whether it is physically possible for a person to shake an infant to death. Experts say it was not possible for the 115-pound Jacobazzi to physically shake Matthew, who weighed 21 pounds, to death, especially since his neck and spine were undamaged.
  • Some experts said Matthew's pediatric records, which were not raised at Jacobazzi's trial, indicate he seemed to have suffered from internal bleeding and a CT scan and slide of brain tissue may have revealed a slow bleed from an old head injury that remained undetected until he was rushed to the hospital on the day he was under Jacobazzi's care.

Jacobazzi was convicted of first-degree murder on May 18, 1999, and is incarcerated at Lincoln Correctional Center in Lincoln, Ill. After losing a series of appeals, she is seeking a new trial; an evidentiary hearing is scheduled in May to consider her request.

The Medill Innocence Project is also working to create the nation's first shaken-baby criminal case database available to the public. As medical experts increasingly question the traditional understanding of shaken-baby syndrome, the specter arises that parents, nannies, day care providers and others may have been imprisoned, based on medical thinking at the time, for crimes they did not commit.

About Medill

Medill was founded in 1921 and offers programs in journalism and integrated marketing communications. It teaches new techniques essential in today's digital world. Medill is leading the way in training a new generation of multimedia journalists and integrated marketing communications professionals. The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University is named after Joseph Medill, a newspaper man and former Mayor of Chicago.

For more information:
Alec Klein
Professor
(847) 467-4476
alec-klein@northwestern.edu

Michael Dizon
Senior marketing director, Medill
(847) 467-2961
michael.dizon@northwestern.edu


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Source: MedillNorthwestern University