On Wednesday morning at 11, after just three days of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on two charges involving the death of a three-month-old baby. The verdict came approximately a day after the jury was sent back after reaching an impasse.
The jury had a tough task of sorting through expert testimony that at times conflicted. It became clear that there were multiple reasons why the jury reached a not guilty verdict.
When the prosecution began their case several weeks ago, they attempted to focus the jury on the serious injuries that their experts testified caused the death of the young baby. One by one, day after day, these experts would testify to what they saw in the x-rays, blood work, and what was found in the autopsy.
The prosecution’s case was based on the notion that the injuries were a direct result of shaking the baby violently on more than one occasion. However, the science of shaken baby syndrome has been called into question in recent years.
The key prosecution expert, Dr. Bennett Omalu, testified that there was no doubt that the baby died of a severe traumatic brain injury.
He would testify, “Sam’s injuries were not sustained from a fall. It was non-accidental. An infant’s motor abilities are very small and the injuries incurred would require a lot of mass and energy.”
However, Dr. John Plunkett, a critic of shaken-baby theory, would testify a few days later that it is was just as likely that Samuel’s injuries resulted from a fall from a three-foot-high bed onto the hardwood floor.
He would tell the jury that even landing on a carpeted floor could produce a devastating injury if the baby landed on his head. He also testified that if the baby had been shaken violently enough to cause death, the neck should have shown signs of injury or a break—which it did not. When asked about the rib fractures, he noted that “normal handling” with a child who has a Vitamin D deficiency, which Sam did have, could result in rib fractures.
As the Vanguard noted at the outset of the trial – SBS diagnoses have been increasingly problematic.
SBS was first identified in the 1970s and diagnosed with a triad of symptoms: “retinal hemorrhage (bleeding at the back of the eye), subdural hematoma (blood gathered between the outermost layer of the brain and the lining between the brain and the skull), and cerebral edema (excess fluid in the brain).”
The parent or caretaker, frustrated or exasperated by the infant, shakes the child which causes the symptoms and leads to brain damage or death.
Critics note that the diagnosis provides both the cause and manner of death as well as giving the prosecutors mens rea. The testimony of the expert in this case for the prosecution, Dr. Omalu, bears that out, noting in his expert opinion that the diagnosis not only determines the nature but also the cause of injuries, and reaches a conclusion best reserved for the jury.
One of the big problems that we face in such cases is that the system really is not equipped to vet medical testimony. The jury had to listen to competing theories from experts and weigh between them.
During Mr. Stone’s own testimony, he testified that the baby suffered from a fall from a bed onto the hardwood floor. This occurred approximately a month prior to his death.
Kaiser’s Dr. Erickson testified that, after examining the infant, he felt the baby appeared normal. He stated, “He was a white, healthy, happy baby boy with no outward injuries, no bruised, swelling or dilated pupils.”
But he acknowledged that, at the same time, he never thought it was necessary to order a CAT scan, despite knowledge that the baby had fallen three feet. The baby’s doctor testified that she assured the parents that the baby’s symptoms were the result of acid reflux rather than serious trauma from a fall from a three-foot-high bed.
One of the jurors indicated in an interview with the Enterprise that he sided with the defense out of the belief that Mr. Stone did not fit the profile of a child abuser.
Moreover, the doubts and uncertainty behind the science of SBS played a role. He told the paper, “Medical science is not exact at all.” He added, “I think this family just had a really bad day — that’s what this is about.”
This was a particularly difficult case to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, as there were no witnesses, only experts who read injuries post mortem. Deputy DA Steve Mount would conclude his closing statements arguing that the defense’s medical account “just does not match up.”
“This was not an accident, and it leaves you with medical evidence that tells you something happened. No one was home with Stone when this happened to the baby,” he would argue. “you must believe the story of how Sam got from the middle of that bed to the floor but let’s take a look at what we are here for and not here for. Mr. Stone is not charged with murder, the Grand Jury is the one who charges and they are not saying that he did this out of anger, intent or even that he struck him, wanting to hurt him. What the evidence shows is that something happened on October 3, within minutes, causing great bodily injury and death.”
He said, with Shaken Baby Syndrome, sometimes children present with no injury, no signs, no abrasions, no external trauma but if a child fell there would be evidence of an epidural bleed and with those falls, it would be death. He admitted, “Study of SBS needs more research on both sides.”
He added, “I gave him the opportunity to tell me what could have happened, but he didn’t.”
The problem with Mr. Mount’s argument is he was attempting to shift the burden for the death. It is not the defense’s burden to come up with a coherent counter-explanation, it is the duty of the prosecution to prove their explanation beyond a reasonable doubt.
That is really where this case ends. The jury did not believe that the prosecution provided their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
A horrible tragedy occurred here and it is something that the Stones will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Now the focus will turn to reuniting Mr. Stone with his two sons, who have been limited to weekly supervised visitations.
—David M. Greenwald reporting