ON 16 OCTOBER, 1995 Audrey Edmunds was minding a neighbour’s, 7-month-old daughter Natalie at her home in Wisconsin in the US.
Edmunds had left Natalie alone in a bedroom for half an hour, but when she came back the child appeared to be choking and was unresponsive.
Emergency services were called, however by then Natalie’s condition had deteriorated and she died soon after.
An autopsy revealed extensive brain damage, and a forensic pathologist determined the cause of death to be shaken baby syndrome.
Edmunds was later convicted of murder. A court ruled that she had killed Natalie by shaking her to death.
Shaken baby syndrome (also known as abusive head trauma) is a term used to describe a number of conditions which when taken together are thought to show that a baby has been violently shaken.
Diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome has been the determining factor in a large number of murder, manslaughter and child abuse cases in the US.
However, the science behind the condition has long been questioned by experts, and convictions are increasingly being challenged across the US with the help of the Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project
After years of failed appeals and parole hearings Edmunds – who always maintained her innocence in Natalie’s death – had her case taken up in 2003 by the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
The Innocence Project was first set up in 1992 and it aims to exonerate the wrongly convicted. This is done through DNA testing and reforms to the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.
Shaken baby syndrome cases have increasingly become an increasing part of Innocence Project cases as the science behind convictions becomes more and more questioned.
With the help of the Innocence Project, Edmunds was able to challenge the expert opinion that had led to her conviction in 1996. She was eventually fully exonerated.
It was another shaken baby case that Irish junior barrister Mark Curran spent the majority of his time focussed on when he worked with the Wisconsin Innocence Project over the summer.
Curran was one of five Irish barristers to be awarded a scholarship from the Bar of Ireland last year to travel to different states in the US and work with Innocence Projects there.
Speaking this week at the launch of the Bar’s 2017 scholarships, Curran said he didn’t know what to expect when he went over.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I arrived in Wisconsin and what the day to day life as an innocence attorney would be like,” said Curran.
He said that a senior colleague sent him a link to the David and Goliath Wikipedia page as an example of the quintessential innocence project case.
“That’s what it is to be an Innocence Project attorney,” said Curran.
“It’s small very dedicated, underfunded group of individuals who are seeking to exonerate inmates.”
These inmates would in many cases have exhausted the appeals process and be near the end of having any chance of proving their innocence.
Curran said that 99% of the time he spent working in Wisconsin was on a single case of a child who died from shaken baby syndrome.
His case involved a man who was convicted in 2006 for the reckless homicide of his 11-week-old son and had been sentenced to 40 years in prison without parole.
“A huge amount of cases are being taken by Innocence Projects right across the United States challenging shaken baby syndrome cases,” said Curran.
As the last five to 10 years in particular show the science behind shaken baby syndrome… just isn’t as solid as was previously thought.
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Five Irish barristers to travel to US to work on Innocence Project cases
Up to five Irish barristers will travel to the US this year to help exonerate wrongfully-convicted individuals with support from The Bar of Ireland.
Paddy Armstrong of the Guildford Four, who was falsely convicted of carrying out bombings in 1975, spoke at the launch of The Bar of Ireland’s 2018 Innocence Scholarships in the Law Library.
Since 2010, The Bar of Ireland has sponsored junior members to travel to the US to work on Innocence Project cases.
Mr Armstrong, who spent 15 years in prison after being convicted of helping carry out the Guildford and Woolwich bombings in 1975, commended The Bar for for supporting access to justice.
He said: “It’s a sad state of affairs that in 2018 people the world over are still being robbed of their human rights and spending years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
“People working in the legal profession gain very valuable insights by both witnessing this injustice and in working to counter it first-hand. I commend The Bar of Ireland for supporting these scholarships on an annual basis, and in particular I thank the barristers who travel each year. I am very confident your efforts and commitment mean the world to the people at the centre of the innocent projects cases you represent.”
Also speaking at the launch were two barristers who were awarded Innocence Scholarships in 2017: Maria Watson BL, who travelled to Wisconsin, and Patrick Crowe BL, who travelled to Florida.
Paul McGarry SC, chairman of the Council of The Bar of Ireland, said: “Every year we are reminded of the importance of our Innocence Scholarships when participants return home and share their experiences with us. The experience they gain both professionally and personally working on cases of such importance is invaluable.
“As barristers, advocating for access to justice on behalf of our clients is central to our day to day work. Doing so on behalf of wrongfully convicted and imprisoned individuals heightens that mission even further.”