WOBURN — Pallavi Macharla, a 44-year-old mother of two, was convicted of second-degree murder Monday in Middlesex Superior Court in the 2014 shaken baby death of a Burlington infant she was baby-sitting.
Macharla, handcuffed and sobbing, was sentenced to life in prison, as required by law. She will be eligible for parole in 15 years.
The verdict comes as the medical and legal communities nationwide continue to clash over the science surrounding shaken baby deaths.
Such cases have proven to be fraught for state prosecutors, but Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan told reporters outside the courthouse Monday that the three-week trial offered jurors a thorough airing of the medical arguments on both sides.
“This prosecution was the result of a long and thoughtful investigation,” she said.
In many suspected shaken baby cases, child abuse experts insist that widespread bleeding in the brain and behind the eyes are well accepted signs of such head trauma, while lawyers challenge the diagnosis and often appeal any convictions.
Prosecutors said Macharla, who worked as a medical doctor in her native India, became frustrated with little Ridhima Dhekane because she was fussy and shook her so violently her brain bled. But Macharla insisted the 6-month old had vomited shortly after she fed her homemade applesauce that fateful March day and then stopped breathing.
In a victim impact statement after the verdict was announced, Ridhima’s father, Umesh Dhekane, softly told Middlesex Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fishman that no family should lose a child the way his did.
“What mostly I miss about her is her smile, her love, her demands, her crying. I wish I could hear her,” Dhekane said. “Hopefully, where ever she is, I hope she is in peace.”
Defense attorney J. W. Carney Jr. described the case as a terrible tragedy for both families. Outside the courthouse, speaking to reporters, he slammed the medical community for adhering to a science he said was outdated.
“Now, the overall trend is against shaken baby syndrome as a legitimate medical condition. It just can’t be proven . . . and yet this jury accepted that,” Carney said.
State law requires a sentence of life in prison for second-degree murder but allows the judge to set the eligibility for parole, starting at 15 years.
Fishman, citing the fact that Macharla had no prior record and testimony that she had tried to revive Ridhima when she stopped breathing, chose the minimum eligibility limit.
Macharla’s husband, Anthony Vakamalla, sobbed from the back row of the courtroom. He was surrounded by tearful friends, some from the couple’s Burlington church who spent hours earlier Monday outside the courtroom praying aloud for an acquittal.
Carney, the defense lawyer, said he would appeal the verdict.
The state’s high court three years ago ordered new trials for two men separately convicted in shaken baby cases, saying their lawyers should have more aggressively challenged the diagnosis during trial.
David Hirsch, a Portsmouth, N.H., lawyer who represented both of those cases on appeal, said Monday he has two more such cases and he believes the science is hardly settled.
“I don’t think at this point there is enough clarity for people to be convicted of crimes of shaking when we don’t know if shaking causes the damage that child abuse practitioners think it does,” Hirsch said in a phone interview.
But medical experts for the prosecution in the Macharla trial said they were clear on their conclusion.
Former Massachusetts chief medical examiner Dr. Henry Nields testified that he had no doubt from overseeing the autopsy on the infant that Ridhima died of blunt force trauma to her head and being shaken. Nields said there were no signs of any disease or other significant findings that would explain the baby’s death. But he also acknowledged during the trial that he found no cuts or bruises on Ridhima’s head that would correspond with the massive bleeding discovered in her brain and behind her eyes.
Nields’s testimony directly contradicted that of his former student, Dr. Anna McDonald, who testified that Ridhima died from cardiac arrest.
McDonald, who at the time was a doctor-in-training in the medical examiner’s office, originally ruled Ridhima died of blunt force trauma and shaking injuries. Nields supervised that autopsy.
But McDonald left the medical examiner’s office shortly after that and began working for a North Carolina doctor who frequently testifies for the defense in trials, questioning the science of shaken baby in such cases.
McDonald said that after she arrived in North Carolina, she started reading medical articles that indicated bleeding behind the eyes is not always a sure indication of a violent shaking — something she said she was led to believe while working in the Massachusetts medical examiner’s office.
Months after leaving Massachusetts, McDonald wrote a letter to prosecutors saying she wanted to revise her findings. She wanted to change the manner of Ridhima’s death to “undetermined,” concluding the infant died of cardiac arrest, and that her other injuries could have been linked to doctors’ efforts to save her.