Test for 'shaken baby syndrome'

The existence of "shaken baby syndrome" as a textbook diagnosis of death or serious injury in young children is being challenged in a series of test cases beginning today.

Three Court of Appeal judges are reviewing the convictions of three men and a woman on charges of murder, manslaughter or grievous bodily harm.

More than 90 other convictions could be challenged if the judges throw doubt on the medical evidence relied on to establish guilt in the four test cases. The outcome could also affect hundreds of Family Division cases in which a parent, usually the father, has been denied access to a child on the basis of allegedly violent treatment.

The appeals result from a review ordered by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith following the successful appeal by Angela Cannings against her convictions of murdering her two baby sons.

Mrs Cannings was cleared after judges ruled that, in the present state of scientific knowledge, no-one should be prosecuted solely on the basis of medical opinion which was disputed between experts.

Accepted

The review ordered by Lord Goldsmith involved some 300 infant death convictions, including more than 90 which raised the issue of shaken baby syndrome.

Over the past 15 years, courts have accepted evidence from paediatricians that shaken baby cases involve three classic signs: swelling of the brain; bleeding between the brain and the skull; and bleeding behind the eyes.

But recent research suggests that such injuries can be caused by falls from a relatively low height or may be linked to vaccinations or medication causing lack of oxygen to the brain.

Defence lawyers led by Michael Mansfield QC argue that it is wrong to accept the shaken baby theory when there is no evidence of previous injury or abuse. The four appeals are scheduled for nine days before Lord Justice Gage, Mr Justice Gross and Mr Justice McFarlane.