Audrey Edmunds is rebuilding her life after her murder conviction was overturned
Photo by Cameron Wittig
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It was the fall of 1995, and Edmunds had the world at her feet. The striking blonde and her husband, Dave, were the proud parents of two little girls, Carrie and Allison, and were thrilled to be expecting their third in February. Edmunds felt fortunate she could stay home and care for her children in the family's new ranch home in Waunakee. During the week, the three went to the library for story hour, played in the park or frequented Waunakee's newest attraction, a McDonald's PlayPlace. Weekends often meant cookouts with the neighbors; Sunday mornings were reserved for services at Crossroads United Methodist Church.
Because she loved kids and wanted to help other neighborhood families, Edmunds started watching a few tots during the week. One of her new charges was six-month-old Natalie Beard, daughter of Waunakee residents Tom and Cindy Beard. From the start, Natalie was a difficult baby. "She fussed or cried all the time," recalls Edmunds' neighbor and friend, Patti Larson, who also babysat. "We'd go for walks together, and any time the stroller went over a sidewalk bump Natalie would cry. If there were any kind of noise, she'd startle. Audrey was constantly holding her and trying to soothe her and make her happy. But she never got frustrated with Natalie. In fact, it was the opposite. She'd say, 'Oh, this poor baby. I feel so bad for her.'"
Early in the morning of October 16, Edmunds and her girls got up and ate breakfast; they'd soon be walking Carrie to preschool with some of the neighbors. At 7:35 Cindy Beard dropped off Natalie, telling Edmunds the baby was irritable, that she'd been up twice the night before and had taken less than half her morning bottle. Natalie continued to fuss after Beard left, so Edmunds placed the baby in the master bedroom and propped the bottle of formula in her mouth, hoping the quiet room and bottle would calm her while she got the other kids ready.
During the next half hour Edmunds checked on Natalie once, and all was fine. But when she went to dress Natalie for the walk to preschool at 8:35, she quickly realized something was amiss. Natalie made some funny noises, says Edmunds, and was limp when she picked her up. Formula dribbled out of her nose and mouth, and then she became unresponsive. Fearing Natalie was choking, Edmunds sped out of the house and called to her neighbor for help. And that's when the nightmare began.
Coined in 1972, the term "Whiplash Shaken-Baby Syndrome" described children, typically under three years of age, who were violently shaken but often showed no visible signs of harm. Because their brains and neck muscles weren't fully developed, their internal injuries were severe--the typical "triad" included brain swelling and brain and retinal hemorrhaging, much like being in a serious car accident or falling several stories. The one positive, the theory went, was that a victim immediately becomes unresponsive, making it a snap to figure out who's guilty: the last person with the child. This was still the view held by most medical experts in October 1995, when Audrey Edmunds ran outside her house screaming, clutching an unresponsive infant.
After the ambulance and police arrived, Med Flight whisked away Natalie. Dave Edmunds, who had just arrived at his new job in the Twin Cities, turned around and drove back home. That afternoon the couple raced to UW Hospital to see how Natalie was doing. "I was so distraught, thinking about what had happened," recalls Edmunds, still assuming Natalie was a choking victim. "I kept thinking, 'Why did I leave her with a bottle?'" She had no idea of the storm clouds quietly gathering around her.
The physicians examining Natalie found a severe presentation of the classic Shaken Baby Syndrome symptoms. So when Natalie died that evening, Edmunds was immediately presumed guilty. The fact that Edmunds hadn't watched Natalie for the past four days and Natalie had only been in her care a mere hour before her tiny body shut down was irrelevant. Nor did it matter that Natalie had no outward signs of abuse, such as the rib fractures or bruised arms sometimes found on SBS victims. Or that much older hemorrhages were found inside her brain. Or that everyone who knew Edmunds loved her. Or that no one ever saw her abuse a child. All that mattered was Natalie had the classic SBS symptoms, and when she became unresponsive, Edmunds had her.
"There was no critical thinking about things that might have gone differently," says Stephen Hurley, her defense attorney and one of the most successful trial lawyers in Dane County. "It was complete tunnel vision."
During the investigation that followed, prosecutors would wave off information about Natalie's father, Tom, indicating he was a nervous dad who suffered from migraines and was often irritated by her incessant crying. Also dismissed was Natalie's health history, which included numerous ear infections--she was being treated for one the day she died--and dozens of calls and trips to the doctor. They even ignored the fact that Natalie's parents had taken her into the doctor for lethargy, irritability and vomiting, symptoms that can indicate brain injury, several days before her death.
Shelly Rusch, Dane County assistant district attorney, says there was no reason to consider any of those factors because the case was one of simple timing. (Rusch was not involved with the case in 1995, but worked on it recently.) "We prosecutors were lucky," she says. "Natalie's injuries were so serious, any person suffering from them would have been immediately symptomatic. It is what it is."
John Plunkett is a Minnesota pathologist who has questioned SBS for years. Initially, he was considered part of the lunatic fringe; now he's treated with growing deference. Plunkett first became interested in the subject around 1985, when a defense attorney asked him to look into the death of an eighteen-month-old girl. The girl's mom said she'd been standing on the arm of a sofa and fell, hitting her head on the floor. She was brought to the hospital with retinal hemorrhages, brain swelling and subdural hemorrhages. The State alleged the mother shook her. "I said, 'Well, couldn't this fall have caused the death?'" says Plunkett. "They said, 'We never see it, so short-distance falls don't cause serious injuries in kids.' I said, 'But how do we know that?' And they said, 'Because we never see it.' That's just a circular argument, so I started looking at Shaken Baby Syndrome and realized something was very wrong."
But back then, few people agreed. Although Plunkett and other interested experts began studying everything from shaking's biomechanical effects on an infant's head and neck to whether a baby could have a lucid interval between the time shaking occurred and the baby became unresponsive, the medical and scientific communities were still largely united ten years later, when Natalie died. So rather than prosecutors having the burden of proving Edmunds' guilt, in reality Edmunds' defense team had to prove her innocence. In 1995, that was nearly impossible.
"When I took on the case, I couldn't find any experts who thought [Natalie] wasn't shaken," Hurley says. Further complicating matters, the death of a young child causes intense emotions. Prosecutors feel driven to give voice to the innocent lamb, while the public is hell-bent on finding who's to blame.
Hurley found just one medical expert who could help. Like the prosecution's experts, Mary Dominski, a pediatric neurologist with Dean Health System, believed Natalie had been shaken. But Dominski was the only physician to consider relevant her medical history and extreme fussiness the previous day, leading her to conclude Natalie was moderately shaken before she arrived at the Edmunds home. Then, Dominski theorized, Natalie suffered a major seizure at daycare from the prior shaking, culminating in her death.
Lacking additional experts, numerous friends testified to Edmunds' stellar character: She had boatloads of patience. She loved kids. They never heard her utter an angry word. They dropped in unannounced all the time and never saw anything amiss. "Audrey has that personality people automatically gravitate toward," says good friend and former neighbor Shelley Murphy. "She'd do anything for anyone." Might Edmunds have been overwrought and momentarily lost it, shaking the ever-fussy Natalie? "I never, ever even considered she might have done it," says Murphy. "I understand she was the last person with the child, but anyone who knew her knew there was just no way."
Unfortunately for Edmunds, nearly everyone judging her had never met her.