By Jun Tae “Walter” Ko and Alecia Rechiards
Lawyers for Tonia Miller, a Michigan mother convicted of killing her daughter in 2001, have filed a motion for a new trial, asserting the child wasn’t a victim of shaken-baby syndrome but of an illness.
In its court filing, the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School argued the 11-week-old infant, Alicia Duff, died of pneumonia. Prosecutors had accused Miller of violently shaking her child.
“Shaken-baby syndrome is a very dangerous diagnosis … it is scientifically insupportable,” said David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, which has examined several shaken-baby syndrome cases, in an interview for this article. “Because the way people were trained for many years, they stop looking for anything else.”
Dr. Brian C. Hunter, the forensic pathologist who conducted the child’s autopsy and ruled her death a homicide, testified in 2002 that Alicia “was basically a healthy child.” Hunter concluded Alicia’s internal injuries—brain bleeding, brain swelling and bleeding within the eyes—were the result of shaken-baby syndrome. Hunter could not be reached for comment for this story. At the 2003 trial, the prosecution presented its theory that Miller, as a young teenage mother, shook her infant because she was stressed. Miller, then 19, was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison. The Calhoun County Prosecutor’s Office did not return calls for comment for this article.
As part of its nine-month investigation in 2016, The Medill Justice Project interviewed several medical experts who questioned the shaken-baby syndrome diagnosis and suggested authorities may have prematurely foreclosed the possibility that Alicia’s death was the result of something other than murder, including pneumonia.
“[Alicia] had been sick from the very beginning,” Dr. Janice Ophoven, a pediatric forensic pathologist in Woodbury, Minnesota, told The Medill Justice Project. Ophoven reviewed the medical records, including the autopsy, which noted Alicia had pneumonia.
Ophoven said Miller’s case involved a triad of internal head injuries but no overt signs of abuse and was thus in a category of “the most dangerous convictions of all.” They are “extremely hazardous convictions because they’re based solely on the now unstable theory that shaking can kill an infant in the absence of neck trauma and in the absence of any other physical violence.”
Ophoven added, “If you were going to make a poster child for the best false conviction for shaken baby, this will be it.”
Dr. Jane Willman Turner, a forensic pathologist and professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, reviewed many of the medical records, including X-rays at the hospital that showed Alicia’s left lung was filled with fluid. Turner told The Medill Justice Project this pneumonia could have been responsible for Alicia’s brain swelling.
“I think Alicia was a very sick baby and she was septic and may have had a seizure disorder and died of natural causes,” Turner said.
The Medill Justice Project also discovered as part of its investigation that Alicia exhibited symptoms not explored at trial, including what Miller family members, friends and neighbors believed to be seizures. What’s more, multiple witnesses interviewed for The Medill Justice Project’s story said Alicia had fallen from a short distance at least twice and, on a separate occasion, bumped her head in the weeks leading up to her death, accidents that did not come up at trial. Miller’s family could not be reached for comment.
Miller told The Medill Justice Project in 2016 that she had taken Alicia to the doctor at least three times in a panic. However, Miller said at trial the doctors didn’t believe there was anything wrong with Alicia, telling her in one instance that Alicia had been holding her breath because she was upset, not because she was struggling to breathe.
Miller, an inmate at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan, could not be reached for comment. She will be eligible for parole in 2023.