The man who exposed the shoddy forensics of Shaken Baby Syndrome — and got prosecuted

John Plunkett, who just died at age 70, was a Minnesota medical examiner who grew skeptical of the forensic theory behind Shaken Baby Syndrome.

He started investigating cases in which children had died in a manner similar to the way accused caregivers had described the deaths of the children they were watching — by short-distance falls. What he found alarmed him. In 2001, Plunkett published a study detailing how he had found symptoms similar to those in the SBS diagnosis in children who had fallen off playground equipment. It was a landmark study. If a short-distance fall could produce symptoms similar to those in SBS cases, the SBS diagnosis that said symptoms could only come from shaking was wrong. By that point, hundreds of people had been convicted based on SBS testimony from medical experts. Some of them were undoubtedly guilty. But if Plunkett was right, some of them almost certainly weren’t.

After he gave expert testimony that led to an acquittal in Oregon and thus became “a threat to SBS cases all over the country,” the county district attorney indicted Plunkett over supposed inconsistencies in his testimony. Those proceedings eventuated in the dropping of some charges and Plunkett’s acquittal on the rest; in the mean time, however, they chilled the willingness of defense attorneys elsewhere to rely on his testimony. [Radley Balko]


  • Sadly, medicine has its charlatans still. Good theories that would not succumb to the cold light of real data. So SBS gets created, then with insufficient evidence both the medical and legal communities run with it. Until someone more critically examines whether a seemingly plausible idea is in fact the truth.

    Same be said for many other things. SIDS was born on the cases of a medical researcher and murderous mother, since convicted (Waneta Hoyt) of killing five of her own children. While the very cases that were the underpinnings of the SIDS diagnosis were proved bunk, the SIDS diagnosis continues despite adequate validation.

    • “Sadly, medicine has its charlatans still.”

      As does the legal profession with its prosecutors who only care of winning at all costs, instead of justice.