When a child dies under suspicious circumstances, the understandable impulse is to look for someone—anyone—to blame. But what if our desire to see “justice” carried out actually has had the opposite effect, and our desire for swift punishment has actually put innocent people behind bars? That’s the alarming possibility raised by tonight’s episode of Frontline, “The Child Cases,” a startling look at the faulty and biased forensic science used to investigate child deaths.
First, we learn the facts in what would appear to be an open-and-shut-case of infanticide. On October 8, 2000, Ernie Lopez made a frantic call to 911. Isis Vas, the 6-month-old infant he and his wife had been babysitting, had suddenly stopped breathing. The baby was rushed to the hospital, where suspicion quickly turned to Lopez, a mechanic and father of three with no prior criminal record. Isis’s body was covered in bruises, and CT scans showed swelling in her brain—classic symptoms of so-called “Shaken Baby Syndrome.” Even more alarming, Isis was bleeding vaginally. Less than 24 hours later, she was dead. A medical examiner swiftly ruled that Isis had died of multiple blunt force wounds and that Isis had been raped. Lopez was arrested for sexual assault and murder; in 2003, he was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in a Texas prison.
From there, reporter A.C. Thompson puts the Lopez case in context. “The Child Cases” is the latest in a series, produced jointly by NPR, Frontline, and ProPublica, investigating medical examiners and forensic pathology in America. Previous stories have looked at the influence of shows like CSI on juries and how severely reduced state budgets have forced medical examiners’ offices across the country to cut corners—with potentially devastating ramifications. A consistent and unsettling theme throughout the series (which is worth checking out in its entirety here) is the lack of national standards when it comes to the accreditation of forensic scientists, and it emerges yet again in “The Child Cases.”
Investigations into infant deaths are complicated by a number of factors, both emotional and medical. Understandably, perhaps, it’s all the more difficult to maintain scientific neutrality when it appears that a child has been killed; at the same time, their smaller bodies and sensitive systems demand specialized medical knowledge. Yet, as Thompson points out, there are few, if any, regulations specific to the investigation of child death cases. Medical examiners in child death cases are not required to be board-certified pathologists, nor are they required to consult with pediatric specialists or submit their findings to peer review.
As one expert puts it, with child deaths, there is an assumption of “homicide until proven otherwise.” Examiners don’t consider—or are not even aware of—the many medical conditions that can manifest themselves in the same ways as physical abuse. At the same time, the medical establishment is also increasingly skeptical about the very existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Thompson interviews Dr. Patrick Barnes, a pediatric radiologist who testified in 1997 against Louise Woodward, the British nanny convicted of shaking an 8-month-old infant to death. Barnes is now a vocal skeptic. “You cannot accuse, indict or convict based on the medical evidence that we have,” he declares. Another expert, Dr. Michael Laposata, asserts that there are at least a dozen major blood disorders that mimic the symptoms of physical abuse, like spontaneous bruising and profuse bleeding. Interwoven throughout these interviews are the stories of two other caretakers accused of murdering infants who were later proved innocent. In both instances, the medical examiner had either dubious qualifications, a clear bias against the defendant, or both.
Thompson then returns to examine Lopez’s case in greater detail. The narrative structure is highly effective: Establish what appears to be an airtight case, explain the flawed science, then systematically dismantle the evidence against Lopez (it’s the same structure David Grann used in his brilliant and devastating New Yorker piece on Cameron Todd Willingham, which in my opinion should be required reading for all humans). In particular, we learn about the bizarre set of circumstances leading up to Isis’ death. The baby’s mother, an alcoholic, often left her daughter with the Lopez family for days at a time; an ob/gyn, she has since had her medical license revoked. In the days before her death, Isis exhibited a number of worrying symptoms. Ernie Lopez expressed his concerns about Isis’ health to her mother, but she brushed him off: “She’ll be fine.”
To anyone with even a passing interest in criminal justice reform, Lopez’s case is dispiritingly familiar: A Latino defendant in Texas gets a lousy defense attorney and is sent to jail to life for a murder that he most likely didn’t commit. But, even in a place like Texas, his conviction seems especially cruel. Unlike CSI, almost nothing about “The Child Cases” is sexy—there’s lots of talk about tarry stools and platelet counts—but that’s all the more reason to watch it.