Why it is so difficult for some judges in Massachusetts to believe that adults intentionally harm and kill infants? Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine an adult — seven times larger than a defenseless infant and with a developed and rational brain — grasping and violently shaking a crying child, and causing blunt force trauma to the head. The sheer monstrosity of the attack is unimaginable.
But that does not mean it does not happen. As many as 1,300 infants are victims of violent shaking and impact in the United States annually. Most babies survive, many with neurologic defects, blindness, and disabilities. But 25 percent of shaken infants die of their injuries. Prosecutors have acquired videotapes of infants being shaken. And occasionally a caregiver confesses to causing injury to an infant. There is no doubt that some adults abuse babies by violent shaking and impact.
Next month, Judge Kenneth Fishman will resentence Pallavi Macharla in the homicide of baby Ridhima Dhekane. A jury convicted Macharla of second-degree murder, but the judge reduced the verdict to involuntary manslaughter. What is it about this judge that confused him about the medical findings? Medical care providers from Boston Children’s Hospital, the best in the nation, testified about Ridhima’s injuries. Macharla’s defense experts expounded on unproven theories. The jury considered the evidence and rejected the opinions of the defense’s witnesses.
The medical facts of Abusive Head Trauma are incontestable. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, American Association of Neurological Surgeons, American Academy of Neurology, the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, and many other professional organizations agree with the facts and science and have issued consensus statements. There are more than 700 medical publications on Abusive Head Trauma in peer-reviewed medical journals. Simply put, there is no scientific controversy in Shaken Baby Syndrome.
Twenty-two years ago, my baby, Matty, was shaken and suffered blunt head trauma severe enough to leave a two-and-a-half inch skull fracture and severe bleeding in the brain and eyes. There was no chance of recovery.
Like Ridhima’s mother, I, too, was called at work by my childcare provider, who said, “I think he’s choked on his vomit,” when my baby was found unconscious, after the severe shaking and impact. Macharla told Ridhima’s mother that she thought the baby choked on “chunky” homemade applesauce.
I, too, rushed to Children’s Hospital ER, to find my previously healthy baby intubated on a stretcher as doctors and nurses tried to save him.
I, too, was in denial that anything like this could happen to my infant at the hands of a trusted caregiver. It was too horrific to imagine that anyone would ever be so angry and out of control that they would violently hold, shake, and slam a totally defenseless infant.
I, too, testified at a jury trial where the perpetrator was convicted of second-degree murder, only later to be reduced to manslaughter and set free by Judge Hiller Zobel.
What is it about killing babies that these judges have trouble punishing? Should we come to the conclusion that a child’s life does not matter in our state? Some judges seem to have more compassion for the perpetrator of a crime against a child than they value of the life of the child. Ridhima deserved to grow up — it is that simple. And people who harm children or adults deserve to be punished. Abusive behavior should not be excused or rationalized.
What will Judge Fishman tell the family of Ridhima? Is her life inconsequential in the eyes of the court? Does he sympathize more with the perpetrator, a trained doctor in India who chose to care for children in her home and did not call 911 when the baby was gravely ill? In his statement in reducing the sentence, Fishman mentions that the childcare provider is described as “nice.” Being nice does not preclude violent behavior; even serial killers, priests who abuse children, or doctors who abuse gymnasts were thought to be “nice.”
I know the infinite burden of being the mother of a murdered child. I know the hopelessness I felt in the ICU, the desire that it could be any other medical diagnosis rather than abuse by someone we trusted. I know the helplessness of holding my dying child in my arms. I know PTSD. I know the challenges of raising surviving children who struggle to make sense in the aftermath of trauma, and the impact on them and on marriage. I know an anger and sorrow that I had never imagined possible. I know the hope of organ donation, the justice of conviction, and the desire for prevention and good through our foundation. I wish I knew the privilege of raising my son, Matthew.
Unfortunately, I also know the experience that perpetrators lie, that judges make uneducated or biased decisions, and that sometimes a baby’s value is not recognized by the court.
I beg to differ. Babies matter, and abusive behavior needs to be punished.
Dr. Deborah Eappen is president of the Matty Eappen Foundation.