Child Death Cases Repeatedly Mishandled

Jun 28, 2011
Originally published on July 19, 2011 5:10 pm

NPR News Investigations, ProPublica and PBS Frontline analyzed nearly two dozen cases in which people have been accused of killing children based on flawed work by forensic pathologists. Some of the accused were later cleared. Others are still in prison. Click here to read the complete investigation.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

: Today, NPR's Joseph Shapiro looks at cases in Georgia, Florida, Texas and Canada. And we should warn you that some of what you will hear in the next seven minutes is disturbing.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Take the case of Melonie Ware. Her husband, Reggie, drives around Atlanta. He's pointing out some of the houses he once owned, but had to sell quickly to try to get his wife out of prison.

M: And this house right here was - this was Melonie's grandmother's house that I bought. They kind of got upset when I sold it.

SHAPIRO: Those new medical experts the Wares hired showed that the boy died not because Melonie hit him. The cause was sickle cell anemia, which can create bleeding on the brain that looks like the marks of child abuse.

M: When she got locked up, I started searching the Internet and going to different libraries and speaking to different doctors - about like a crash court in college, I guess, of trying to learn about medical science, the new science that was coming out, pediatrics, sickle cell.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Christopher Milroy is a forensic pathologist in Canada.

D: Interestingly enough, we have advanced by knowing we don't know as much as we thought we did. A good example of that is time of death.

SHAPIRO: In an apartment in Toronto, Saurob Kumar, who is 20, talks about how he stumbled across a family secret.

M: One day, like, I was kind of just, I was playing around. And I found a picture of my dad holding a baby. And I didn't know who it was. And so I said, is this another picture of me? And so he's like no. That's someone else. I'm like, who is this?

SHAPIRO: Dinesh Kumar sits next to his son, Saurob, on a small couch.

M: This is the hardest decision I have in my life.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Jon Thogmartin is a medical examiner in Florida.

D: This is the primary autopsy cutting station.

SHAPIRO: Thogmartin gives a tour of the open autopsy room with stainless steel sinks.

D: You do the autopsy with the feet on that end, the head on this end. You weigh the organs as they come out, and you dissect the organs there on that board.

SHAPIRO: In 2001, Thogmartin reviewed autopsies by his predecessor, who'd found two children died after being shaken to death. But Thogmartin found those two babies had died from natural causes. One father was then released from prison, and charges were dropped against the other.

D: I've had a lot of cases where - of rare deaths: shark attacks, dog attacks, bee stings, lightning strikes. I've seen these many times. I am yet to have to diagnose shaken baby. Do I think you could shake a kid to death? Heck, yeah. I think you can. But I've never seen it.

SHAPIRO: But Dr. Patrick Barnes, a pediatric radiologist, says new technology has changed our understanding.

D: When we started using more advanced imaging techniques such as MRI, we started seeing findings that we had previously attributed to abuse or shaking. We started realizing there were a number of medical conditions that can affect a baby's brain, and look like the findings that we used to attribute to shaken baby syndrome or child abuse.

SHAPIRO: Things like infection, vitamin deficiencies, blood disease and clotting problems can mimic signs of child abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

SHAPIRO: When Monea Tyson's 2-year-old son, Jayceon, was rushed to an El Paso hospital, workers there mistakenly concluded that his congenital skin discolorations - known as Mongolian spots - were bruises. Right away, Tyson was suspected of child abuse that killed her son.

M: I found out I'm being charged. And you don't know how to take that because you're sitting here grieving for a son that you lost, and then to turn around and find out that you're being charged with capital murder, it's kind of - it's hard for one person, a human being, to take, you know?

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.