A Massachusetts man convicted of shaking and abusing his girlfriend's 2-year-old has been given a new trial. Derek Epps was tried and convicted in 2007 for causing shaken-baby syndrome in 2-year-old Veronica. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled this month that new knowledge of shaken-baby syndrome calls the previous trial's evidence into question and could change what the court counts as child abuse.
One morning in 2004, Derek Epps and a friend watched over Veronica. The two were alone with the child. Later that day, Veronica's mother (Epps' girlfriend) noticed a dime-sized bump around on of Veronica's eyes. Epps told his girlfriend that the child fell off a chair while eating breakfast. He later told police that Veronica had also fallen down stairs. Veronica's condition continued to worsen during that day, and the 2-year-old became unconscious, started breathing heavily, and began making gurgling noises.
At the trial in 2007, Epps was convicted of child abuse. A pediatrician from Boston Children's' Hospital testified during the trial that Veronica's injuries were consistent with symptoms of shaken-baby syndrome or abusive head trauma. The pediatricians testimony was not contested even though new research at the time had begun to show that these symptoms could not always be caused by shaken-baby syndrome.
Shaken-baby syndrome is a serious form of child abuse that often results in serious or permanent injures for the child. When a child is violently shaken, sensitive, undeveloped and unprotected blood vessels in children's' brains can suffer tears and cause internal bleeding. This causes pressure in the skull to build which results in brain damage, nerve damage, and eye injuries. In the worst cases, shaken-baby syndrome can result in death. Studies by The National Center for Shaken-Baby Syndrome have found that SBS affects about 14,000 children every year in the US. About 30% of these children die from the resulting injuries. In reality, SBS affects many more children every year, but most of the cases go unreported and the symptoms are left unnoticed because the children do not always show visual, external injuries.
Symptoms of SBS include:
- Difficulty lifting head
- Trouble breathing
- Inability to smile or make sounds
- Bruising on the head, arms, or chest
- Bulging spots on the forehead or head
- Difficulty focusing
- Uneven pupils
Long-term effects of SBS include disabilities in motor function, speech, learning, perception, and memory along with other mental and emotional disabilities.
In the past, SBS was determined to be the cause of many brain-trauma injuries in children, but newer scientific research has called into question the ability of even the most violent shaking to cause such severe injuries. Many experts believe it would take physical trauma (like a blow to the head or a fall off a chair) to cause these injuries. In Epp's case, the court is ruling specifically on whether his previous trial lacked the necessary scientific or medical expert testimony that could lead to a sound judgement of child abuse. In other words, the court is looking to see if the testimony of the pediatrician in the previous trial is up to date with current medical knowledge about SBS.
The court has made it clear that they are not making a ruling about Epp's guilt (or innocence) at this time.