“It’s no exaggeration to say hundreds if not thousands of parents and caregivers are in prison in cases where no crime occurred,” says a spokesperson for the Innocence Project.
Robert Roberson may be one of them. He was convicted and sentenced to death in 2003 after his two-year-old daughter Nikki Curtis died. He says she fell out of bed. He rushed her to the emergency room because she was unconscious and started turning blue. She died at the hospital.
A physician and a pathologist decided Robert had shaken Nikki “very forcefully,” causing brain injuries, which killed her. But scientists now doubt that “shaken baby syndrome,” as this was called, even exists.
If it is even possible at all to shake a child so hard they suffer a brain injury, scientists now say, it is only possible in infants. Nikki was two.
‘Shaken baby syndrome’ is explainable by other means
According to the criminal justice journalism nonprofit the Marshall Project, new studies have shown that oxygen deprivation, falls and other events can cause the same symptoms claimed in “shaken baby syndrome.” Today, experts have cast doubt that “shaken baby syndrome” is even a valid diagnosis.
New medical experts in Robert’s case found that Nikki had suffered from chronic infections and a form of sleep apnea that could cause her to collapse and turn blue. Additionally, she had been prescribed codeine, which can cause children to have breathing problems. Those innocent factors are probably what really led to Nikki’s death, they testified.
Robert was nearly executed in 2016, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals put a stop to it at that time because the “shaken baby syndrome” wasn’t backed up by science anymore. But Robert wasn’t released.
He is still fighting to prove his innocence. His lawyers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that convictions based on now-defunct scientific theories should be overturned.
The state of Texas has asked the court to let Robert’s conviction stand. They argue that no one knowingly gave false testimony in the case and that it’s important to maintain the finality of convictions. The case has been reviewed by the state courts, they argue, and the prosecution didn’t rely exclusively on the “shaken baby syndrome” diagnosis.
But Robert is probably completely innocent. The state of Texas would almost certainly fail to win a conviction if they tried the case today.
When someone is probably innocent, it is no longer in the public interest to maintain finality. The public interest demands the innocent person be freed.