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Medical Experts and Child Abuse Allegations

Thumbnail image for grayscale-photo-of-baby-feet-with-father-and-mother-hands-in-733881.jpgImagine yourself in the following situation:

You are a proud new parent of a heathy, though exceptionally small, baby boy. One day when you are spending time alone with your baby, he accidentally drops his favorite toy while he is in your arms. You bend over to pick up the toy, and your baby suddenly goes limp and falls out of your arms, hitting his head on the kitchen floor. You immediately pick him up; he is crying, but does not seem to be seriously injured at first. A few moments go by, and you notice that your baby's head is starting to show bruising and swelling. After looking up his symptoms on the internet, you decide to take him to the ER.

When you arrive at the ER, the staff questions you about what happened to the child. After some time, the ER pediatrician confronts you, telling you that you are lying about what happened and that you need to tell her the truth. A few minutes later, police arrive and begin questioning you. You are again accused of lying, and the police demand that you "tell them the truth." But, you continue to tell them exactly what happened: that you accidentally dropped your baby boy while you were picking up a toy.

Eventually you are arrested and charged with 1st Degree Child Abuse. It turns out that, in the fall, your son suffered a skull fracture at the point where his head hit the floor. However, nobody believes that is what caused his injury. In fact, the government is bringing in several medical experts who insist this type of injury could only happen after (a) a multistory fall or (b) a severe intentional beating. According to these "experts", an accidental fall of 3 to 5 feet just doesn't explain your baby's injuries.

As your case proceeds to trial, your lawyer decides to say that somebody else must have beaten your child. Your lawyer decides that your explanation is too far-fetched, so he doesn't even reach out to the medical community to see if the government's "experts" are even right. Ultimately, the jury doesn't believe your "somebody else did it" scenario, in part because it contradicts everything you have said up until trial. After you are convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term, you learn that the government's "experts" were wrong, that your child's injury was probably caused by a short fall of a few feet onto a hard floor, and that your lawyer could have learned this if only he had asked the right medical people.

This story may sound bizarre or even far-fetched. But it is based on actual cases that we have handled on appeal in our firm. Unfortunately, many criminal defense lawyers, even some that are generally very good at what they do, simply lack the knowledge and experience to properly handle false allegations of child abuse.

The Michigan Supreme Court has recognized that, in these cases, defense counsel needs expert assistance.[1] The Supreme Court has also recognized that, if the accused cannot afford to pay for expert assistance, the government should pay for it, if there is a "reasonable probability both that an expert would be of assistance and that denial of expert assistance would result in a fundamentally unfair trial."[2] Nonetheless, some otherwise good defense lawyers simply don't know (a) how to determine whether a medical expert might be helpful, (b) how to find an appropriate medical expert, and (c) how to get funding for medical experts that their client cannot afford.

Unfortunately, the sad result when these cases go to trial without appropriate expert assistance: families are broken up and innocent parents go to prison. This needs to change. My hope is that, as the appellate courts in Michigan address these issues more seriously that more defense attorneys will either educate themselves on the medical science surrounding child abuse allegations or that they will admit their lack of knowledge and refer these exceptionally difficult cases to the right lawyers for them.

If you are wrongfully charged with, or if even if you have been wrongfully convicted of, child abuse, please call us. We know how to help both at trial and on appeal. We understand the legal and medical controversies involved in these cases and will use our knowledge to help you. Please contact us for more information.


[1] People v Ackley, 497 Mich 381; 870 NW2d 858 (2015)

[2] People v Kennedy, 502 Mich 206, 228; 917 NW2d 355 (2018)


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