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A foster mother goes on trial, and so does shaken baby syndrome

LARGO — Over three days this week, prosecutors have systematically built a murder case against a former foster mother accused of shaking and killing a baby in her care.

Today a defense attorney will try to build a case against shaken baby syndrome itself.

A nationally known critic of shaken baby diagnoses, neurosurgeon Ronald Uscinski of George Washington University Medical Center, is scheduled to testify today for the defense in the case against Tenesia Brown, 42.

And more experts are coming.

"There are … cases all over the country that are being granted new trials because they found out that the science of shaken baby syndrome is flawed," Ron Kurpiers, the defense attorney, said Thursday during a break in the trial.

The case against Brown in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court is one of a growing number of trials nationwide in which expert witnesses are casting doubt on the science surrounding shaken baby cases.

A Connecticut woman was acquitted earlier this year of killing a 7-month-old child after her defense attacked the existence of shaken baby syndrome. A Kentucky judge in 2006 barred trial testimony about shaken baby syndrome on the grounds that it hadn't been scientifically proved. Doubts over shaken baby cases have led to government-ordered reviews of hundreds of cases in Canada and Great Britain.

But it's not a one-sided debate. The diagnosis retains strong support from the Centers for Disease Control and other bedrock medical institutions. Dr. Sally Smith, medical director for Pinellas County's child protection team, testified Thursday that the diagnosis is still widely accepted, though "abusive head trauma" is now the preferred term.

The way the jury interprets these differing medical views could determine whether Brown, who is charged with first-degree felony murder, spends the rest of her life in prison.

Brown's friends and family members attending the trial declined to talk to the media this week, but it's clear they are wasting no expense to clear her. Uscinski, the neurosurgeon scheduled to testify today, charges "up to $750 per hour as a consultant and up to $10,000 per day on the witness stand for out-of-town cases," according to a 2008 Discover magazine article. Mark Herbst, a St. Petersburg radiologist who testified for the defense on Thursday, said his fee is $3,000 for an afternoon.

This case, in a sense, began with the birth of Lazon Gulley. He was born with cocaine in his system. So foster care workers intervened and placed him in foster care while his mother received drug treatment.

Prosecutors said Brown never had been a mother before becoming a foster parent with her husband. In less than six months time, foster care caseworkers sent them four children.

On March 3, 2006, Brown picked up 14-month-old Lazon early from day care because he was suffering from diarrhea and vomiting. About 45 minutes later, she called 911 and reported he was virtually lifeless.

At All Children's Hospital, doctors discovered severe brain damage. Smith, the doctor who testified for the prosecution on Thursday, said Lazon suffered from hemorrhaging in his retinas, and beneath the layer around his brain called the dura. He died in 2008.

The symptoms Lazon suffered are ones that have traditionally been considered hallmarks of shaken baby syndrome, and they are believed to occur right after a child is shaken. Brown was with Lazon just before his injuries were observed in the hospital, which is a big part of the reason she was charged with murder. No one saw her shake Lazon, and she never confessed to doing so. Kurpiers said she may take the witness stand today and deny doing so.

Nationwide, some of the debate centers on the symptoms that are traditionally linked to shaken baby syndrome — especially the retinal and subdural hemorrhaging. When these symptoms are present, they're often cited as evidence that someone must have shaken a baby.

Critics say there's new evidence showing other causes for these symptoms, such as congenital defects. Also, critics say laboratory studies of monkeys and baby-dummies question whether someone shaking a baby would produce enough force to cause the severe brain injuries in cases like Lazon's.

The critics aren't denying that shaking would hurt babies. They're saying babies with these injuries might have gotten them some other way. And that can raise reasonable doubt about whether accused caregivers such as Brown are responsible for the injuries.

So far the defense has not presented a theory on how Lazon was hurt. They are not legally required to.

"We're not blaming anybody else," Kurpiers said. "We're saying it was not shaken baby and that the trauma did not occur from the actions of Mrs. Brown."

Brown's trial is expected to conclude today or Monday.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

A foster mother goes on trial, and so does shaken baby syndrome 08/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 11:18pm]
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