Jennifer Del Prete spent nearly a decade in prison after being found guilty in the “shaken baby syndrome” death of an infant in her care. She was released last August after an appeals court found that the prosecution had withheld key evidence that might have exonerated her. Prosecutors are constitutionally required to turn over all pro-defense evidence.
She has now filed a civil rights lawsuit over the same issue. She claims that the police and a prosecution witness conspired to frame her, falsely claiming that there was evidence she had shaken the baby when she had not done so. She says the child simply stopped breathing suddenly. This was possibly due to chronic subdural hematomas or other causes besides violent shaking. Moreover, the medical examiner who performed an autopsy on the child doubted there had been abuse.
According to the Courthouse News Service, the child was in the care of a day care center in another state where Del Prete worked when the baby suddenly stopped breathing. According to the lawsuit, a pediatrician testified that the child’s bleeding brain was the result of “shaken baby syndrome,” or someone violently shaking the child. That pediatrician, however, never actually performed a physical examination of the child.
It seems that doctor was not even provided with the child’s full health history, which would have revealed chronic subdural hematomas. Such a condition might easily have explained bleeding on the brain, casting serious doubt on the “shaken baby” conclusion.
Moreover, the lawsuit claims that the defense was never given a letter by the medical examiner casting doubt on the “shaken baby syndrome” diagnosis. That was presumably the violation of her rights that resulted in her release last year.
Del Prete also claims that police officers intentionally concocted a story claiming that she had shaken the child, even though they knew the child’s symptoms could easily have been caused by a fall, the chronic subdural hematomas, or another cause.
She lost more than just a decade of her life due to the case although she did experience fear and distress during her incarceration. The case was highly publicized, meaning she faced stigma and reputational damage. Much more important, however, she lost crucial time with her own children due to the alleged frame-up.
Her children were 7 and 15 when she entered prison, and she lost the chance to see them grow up.
She is seeking punitive damages — meant to punish the defendant for wrongdoing — for the violation of her constitutional rights, conspiracy, malicious prosecution and emotional distress.