The Justice Trap: How Medical Orthodoxy can be Judge, Jury and Executioner
Jon Robins continues his series on miscarriages of justice with a chilling story of the parents of a new born baby who fell ill
When Effie Stillwell was just three months old, she suffered her first seizure. Her parents Carla Andrews and Craig Stillwell woke to discover their daughter gasping for air, her face drained of colour and her body floppy.
Terrified, they rushed Effie to hospital. Within hours they were being interviewed in a police station.
They had no one way of knowing it then, but it would take nine months before they would be reunited with their child.
Effie was taken directly to the resuscitation ward. A scan picked up a brain bleed and, with doctors unable to identify a natural cause, the couple were informed that social workers had been called. So desperately worried at their daughter’s predicament, that development didn’t even register with the couple.
As they soothed Effie, a man and a woman entered their hospital room. They were officers from Thames Valley Police. Carla and Craig were told their daughter had suffered a ‘non-accidental injury’ and things were going to proceed in one of two ways: either they went to the station voluntarily or else they would be arrested.
“I just wanted to be by Effie’s bedside. I told them I wasn’t going anywhere,” Craig Stillwell later told me. One of the officers jumped Craig and he was wrestled to the floor.
‘A Medical Diagnosis of Murder’
The American legal academic Professor Deborah Tuerkheimer once called shaken baby syndrome as close to “a medical diagnosis of murder” as it is possible to conceive.
Mainstream medical orthodoxy holds that the combination of symptoms otherwise known as ‘the triad’ – swelling of the brain, bleeding between the skull and brain, and bleeding in the retina – indicates trauma through shaking.
“Prosecutors use it to prove the mechanism of death, the intent to harm and the identity of the killer,” Prof. Tuerkheimer a former assistant district attorney, explained in 2009.
“I just wanted to be by Effie’s bedside… ” One of the officers jumped Craig and he was wrestled to the floor.
As far as the police, courts and the medical establishment are concerned, the three symptoms strongly indicate abuse even in the absence of injuries such as bruising or damage to the neck.
But, the syndrome’s growing army of critics, including Prof. Tuerkheimer, argue that there is no science to support that contention.
In their view, the lives of innocent parents have been destroyed as a result of being wrongly convicted of abusing their children.
William Bache, a solicitor of 50 years’ experience well-known for his work in this difficult area, represented Angela Cannings – who was wrongly convicted of murdering her seven-month-old child – and later Carla Andrews.
In his view, nurses can be quick to take the view in such high pressure situations that they are dealing with child abusers.
Probably well over 200 families are damaged and destroyed by this diagnosis every year.Dr Waney Squier
“They’re judge and jury, and executioner, all in one,” he has said.
Effie’s parents arrived at the hospital at 3.50am on 15 August, 2016 with a desperately ill child. Two days later, they were in court accused of abusing her.
As they were grappling with the law and police, their daughter fought to stay alive. She suffered two more seizures two days after being admitted.
Speaking out against Medical Orthodoxy
Shaken Baby Syndrome, often called abusive head trauma, occupies arguably the most contentious interface between law and medicine.
“It is difficult to know the precise scale of the problem but probably well over 200 families are damaged and destroyed by this diagnosis every year,” the neuropathologist Dr Waney Squier has said.
Carla Andrews and Craig Stillwell were only allowed supervised contact with Effie, by order of the court, three days a week for 90 minutes. It took nine months for that family’s nightmare to end.
Tests for a rare genetic disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, revealed that she suffered from type IV, which could cause easy bruising and spontaneous bleeds on the brain.
Dr Squier, a former consultant at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, is one of a few experts prepared to speak out against the medical orthodoxy. To do so is to incur the wrath of the establishment and hugely controversial on both side of the Atlantic. When American investigative journalist Susan Goldsmith made a film, The Syndrome, about the issue, she was unsurprisingly threatened with legal action and her documentary was banned from film festivals including Sundance.
They’re judge and jury, and executioner, all in one.William Bache
Dr Squier has been effectively silenced since being banned from practising in the UK in 2016 following a ruling by the General Medical Council’s disciplinary tribunal which concluded that she had lied and misled the courts. Her licence was reinstated after a successful appeal. However, she remains banned from appearing in court for three years. Clive Stafford Smith and Michael Mansfield QC wrote to the Guardian claiming Dr Squier had been scapegoated. A few months after the GMC’s ban, the High Court found ‘serious irregularity’on the part of its tribunal.
This week, an academic journal dedicated to innovation and ‘challenging prevailing views’ has finally published an issue covering shaken baby syndrome featuring Dr Squier. It comes after months of what its editor Prof. Stuart Macdonald has called “censorship by procrastination” on the part of its old publisher who last year pulled the plug on the 40-year old academic journal prior to it publishing an issue examining shaken baby syndrome.
For Prof. Macdonald, our courts are “hostile to innovation; precedent is honoured, not novelty”.
“The courts are intolerant of uncertainty and shades of grey, suspicious of the very conditions – doubt, disquiet, frustration – the social sciences consider conducive to innovation,’ he has written. “Only orthodoxy is accepted without question as expertise: dissent must prove itself.”