Friday 28 October 2016

Jury's indecision mirrors that of doctors on shaken baby syndrome

Published 26/06/2015 | 02:30

Sandra Higgins
Sandra Higgins

Something bad happened to baby Amy* and it wasn't an accident.

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On this much, but little else, the prosecution and defence in the trial of Cavan childminder Sandra Higgins agreed.

The mother of two -had she been convicted - faced a potential life term for intentionally or recklessly causing serious harm to Amy on March 28, 2012, while the then-10-month-old child was in her care.

But yesterday, after a six-day trial and just shy of six hours of deliberations, the jury foreman said the jurors could not agree a verdict on which at least which 10 of them were agreed.

In a written statement handed to trial judge Patricia Ryan, the jurors said they could not reach an agreement, even if they took more time to consider it.

The jury was assiduous in its task: a child had received life-threatening injuries and a woman faced - and could yet face if she is retried - the prospect of a life term.

After their deliberations began, the jury returned on a number of occasions to Judge Ryan to seek clarification on the contents of a notebook, requesting medical reports and asking for the conflicting evidence of two main witnesses to be re-read to them. They also sought clarity on the definition of recklessness, which Judge Ryan explained was when a person perceives the risk of harm and ignores same by culpably proceeding with the action. "So they fly in the face of the reality," explained the judge in layman's terms.

Certain realities in this, Ireland's first substantive "shaken baby" trial, were not in dispute. This included the fact that baby Amy was brought by Ms Higgins to the A&E unit at Cavan General Hospital with life-threatening injuries on the afternoon of Wednesday March 28, 2012.

Two days earlier, Amy's parents - who for weeks were concerned about the number of bumps and bruises she was incurring while in Ms Higgins's care - had told the registered childminder that they were making alternative childcare arrangements.

When Amy presented at hospital, the situation was grave: she had active seizures and her body was floppy.

She had extensive bruising, as well as head and facial injuries while tests also uncovered older injuries including fractured ribs.

Amy had, the trial heard, suffered a brain injury, detached retina and retinal haemorrhaging and had seizures for five days.

Doctors who treated baby Amy said her injuries were consistent with violent shaking, were non-accidental and that it was highly likely they had happened to her while in Ms Higgins's care.

One leading UK child abuse expert stated that it was "a classic, textbook case" of shaken baby syndrome.

SBS, a form of abusive head trauma, is normally confirmed with symptoms including subdural haemorrhaging, bleeding in the retina, and brain swelling. The jury in the trial of Ms Higgins was tasked with deciding two issues that go to the heart of the syndrome: the mechanism and the timing of the injuries.

In his closing speech to the jury, Prosecutor Sean Gillane SC told the jurors they had one simple question to ask: when did the child go from normal to abnormal and what does that mean to you?

Remy Farrell SC, who defended Ms Higgins, queried, however, how the prosecution could assert Amy was a perfectly normal child up to March 28 but was silent on the older injuries, including fractured ribs and fingertip bruises on her back.

The defence, which argued the evidence was more suggestive of a head trauma and the possible re-activation of an old injury, said it was not contending for accidental injury. And Mr Farrell urged the jury to acquit if they couldn't say conclusively what happened and if they had any doubt that Sandra Higgins inflicted the injuries.

For reasons we cannot know, the jury disagreed.

This is, perhaps, a reflection of disagreement in the medical arena on shaken baby syndrome.

*The infant's real name cannot be published by court order.

Irish Independent

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