With increasing frequency, Michigan mothers and fathers are facing mandatory life in prison on first degree murder charges for the death of a child. It is tragic when parents have to mourn the loss of a child. It is especially tragic when parents, caretakers and babysitters have to stand trial for crimes they did not commit. Unraveling the medical mystery is often difficult. It requires a team of doctors and lawyers to come together willing to “roll up their sleeves” and try to figure out what really happened.
Many prosecutions today rely on the immediate onset of symptoms theory. This is also known as the “no lucid interval” theory. This is a flawed mechanism for determining who to accuse when a child dies suddenly. It basically amounts to “you were there, you must have done something”. Some defense attorneys call it the “last man standing” prosecution fallacy.
It is a lot to ask of a juror. But we ask nonetheless. We ask them to sift through the complicated medical facts and theories and come up with the right answer. I recently did this in a case in Kent County, Michigan. My client was accused of first degree felony murder and first degree child abuse. With both, he was facing the possibility of life in prison. Today, I have a client who is very thankful that the jury got it right. It does not always work that way.
As I reflect on our system of justice, I consider the fact that we send both innocent and guilty men and women to prison. They end up with very long sentences based on flawed prosecution theories, aggressive and unethical investigations, and less-than-scientific conclusions from biased medical doctors. One thing that offers hope to accused caretakers is the jury system. In my practice, I have seen plenty of cases where jurors understood their instructions to consider the evidence and weigh it against the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard. Today, I am particularly grateful to one Kent County jury that did exactly that.