Audrey Edmunds is rebuilding her life after her murder conviction was overturned
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The prosecution easily amassed eight medical experts. And while they weren't in total agreement regarding Natalie's injuries and how they combined to cause her death, all believed she was an SBS victim and Edmunds was the one who killed her.
Lead prosecutor Gretchen Hayward, now retired, pulled out all the stops during Edmunds' trial, painting her as an outwardly nice person with a violent, hidden side. "Gretchen said very dramatic things, like I slammed Natalie's head into a blunt object," recalls Edmunds, interviewed recently near her home in Minnesota. "But Natalie had no head trauma, no skull fracture. I simply found a choking baby! They also tried to implicate me by saying everyone has a dark side, that my friends didn't know the real me, that I was stressed out because I was pregnant and moving, even though I was happy about both events. They tried to create a scenario that just didn't exist."
Despite the overwhelming opinions against her, Edmunds appeared headed for acquittal, Hurley says. And then she took the stand.
"She looked like the proverbial doe caught in the headlights on cross-examination," Hurley remembers. "She kept looking at me when the jury asked a question, like I was coaching her. She fell apart."
But what average American on trial for murder wouldn't be more than a little rattled when grilled by a seasoned prosecutor, questions Dean Strang, who later served as Edmunds' appellate lawyer. Nevertheless, Edmunds' fate was sealed. On November 26, 1996, she was pronounced guilty of first-degree reckless homicide. Her children were just five, two and nine months.
"I wanted to burst into tears and scream," says Edmunds. "I couldn't imagine being put into prison. I'm still shocked about it." When Edmunds arrived home that night, her conviction was already being blared across the ten o'clock news. She curled up beside her sleeping five-year-old, Carrie, and began to sob.
In the mid to late nineties, most people prosecuted for SBS were charged with second-degree reckless homicide, says Strang. If they professed innocence and were convicted, it typically meant seven or eight years behind bars. But Edmunds' conviction meant the jury felt she treated Natalie with "utter disregard for human life." Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser handed down a shocking eighteen-year sentence, barring Edmunds from raising her own girls.
"The prosecution really pushed the edges here," says Strang.
It was Dane County's most notable SBS case to date, and Judge Moeser apparently wanted to make a statement.
And so it was that in February 1997, sixteen months after the nightmare began, Edmunds found herself climbing into a van full of female convicts on its way to Taycheedah Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Fond du Lac, seventy miles northeast of Madison. Sitting among seasoned criminals, dressed alike in their drab green prison garb and clanking metal shackles, Edmunds was still numb. Yet she was confident her attorneys would secure her release post haste because, well, she was innocent.
"I never dreamed I'd be in prison eleven years," she says. "I never even thought I'd be in prison one year."
Hurley turned the case over to Strang to start the appeals process, and Edmunds began her new life as a prisoner: Sleeping on an uncomfortable iron bed in a tiny cell. Urinating out in the open in a tin toilet. Signing up to use the shower or phone but not always given permission. Lacking freedom to do the tiniest things, like turn on a light or grab a snack from the fridge. Doesn't sound bad at all if you've committed a heinous crime, but if you're wrongly convicted, it suddenly appears downright inhumane.
It was right around this time the Louise Woodward case hit the news. Woodward was a nineteen-year-old British nanny working for a Massachusetts couple with two boys. After one of their sons was taken to the hospital with skull and brain injuries from which he later died, Woodward was charged with shaking him to death. Although she pled not guilty, she was convicted. The highly publicized trial caused America's medical and forensic experts to start taking a hard look at the science behind SBS.
They examined whether retinal hemorrhages can be caused by something other than shaking. They studied whether a child with SBS-type injuries can experience an extended "lucid interval," or a period of hours or days after injury where the child appears normal before becoming noticeably impaired or unconscious. They began to wonder if it was possible to violently shake a baby and cause SBS's famed triad of injuries without leaving some kind of visible neck injury. They explored similar brain injuries and death caused by lesser forces than vigorous shaking, such as short, accidental falls, or even conditions like vitamin deficiencies or immunizations. Little by little, compelling research began emerging that babies with brain swelling, retinal hemorrhages and brain hemorrhages aren't slam-dunk cases of SBS. And one by one, experts began changing their minds.
Patrick Barnes was one. A well-respected pediatric neuroradiologist at Stanford University, Barnes was the prosecution's star medical witness in the Woodward case. Today, he regrets that testimony, noting something as mundane as an ear infection can spread to the brain with dire consequences. Unless there's evidence of an impact on a baby such as a fractured skull, Barnes says SBS is more myth than science.
Minnesota's Plunkett, who has extensively studied the biomechanics of shaking, says SBS is a myth, plain and simple.
"There isn't any Shaken Baby Syndrome," he argues. "To cause subdural and retinal hemorrhages by shaking, you'd have to shake a baby twenty to twenty-five times per second to achieve the required force, or load. The most that's humanely achievable in a ten-pound model is three to four cycles per second. It's a simple mathematical equation."
Except it's not that simple. It never is.