The Science Behind Burn Injury Cases

A recent NBC News report, “Burned by ‘Bad Science’”, detailed how two families became victims of flawed testimony. The focus of the account is a Texas Child Abuse doctor acting as a causation expert in burn cases. Like many child abuse “experts” around the country (including Michigan), these government witnesses offer testimony based primarily upon burn patterns. The conclusion? Not surprisingly, the doctor decided that the injuries must have been purposely inflicted by an adult.

Burn cases are very hard for parents to defend in court. For one thing, the pictures of a badly burned child have a powerful impact. The natural reaction is horror. Also, a medical doctor convinced that the parents are the cause is often a powerful force at trial. This was the case with Dr. Matthew Cox, the Child Abuse doctor who testified in the two cases featured in the NBC article (published jointly with the Houston Chronicle.)

In one of the cases, Kenneth and Shelley Walker received a 25-year prison sentence. They were convicted by a jury of purposely scalding their granddaughter in a bathtub. There was no evidence that either grandparent was even in the room with the child at the time of injury. But Dr. Cox still stated with certainty that the injuries were intentional. He reached his conclusion after being mistaken about the most basic facts: The temperature of the water, the significant physical limitations of the grandparents and the lack of other injuries to the child which would happen in a forced immersion.

It took time, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned both convictions. After serving four years in prison, the Walkers were released and acquitted. The case illustrates the way bad science works its way into the courts in a zealous effort to protect children from abuse. Sadly, this encourages testimony which has the gloss of being “scientific” without actual scientific knowledge and reasoning to back it up. As the Texas court stated: “The human desire to defer to an “expert” is innate and not always rational. . . . We do not know, nor can we know, how the child came to be injured without resort to speculation. Putting a scientific gloss over that speculation does not make the evidence more certain.”

Michigan courts face exactly the same challenges in child abuse cases. Michigan families face exactly the same unfair consequences. Every parent or caretaker going to court to defend a false allegation deserves the best defense possible. In most cases, the real opponent is not the prosecution. It is a Child Abuse doctor who is an expertly trained witness; one ready to present the gloss of scientific certainty to medical opinions. At Cronkright Law, we fight daily for parents facing false allegations of child abuse. We highly recommend this article.

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