On the evening of April 4, 1997, Teresa Engberg-Lehmer fed her three-month-old son, Jonathan, and put him to sleep on a blanket around 7:30 p.m. in a back bedroom of their home in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Teresa, 24, and her husband, Joel Lehmer, 32, then went to bed until 11:15 p.m. when she got up to make coffee for Joel. Joel arose and went to work, delivering bundles of newspapers. After he left, Teresa went to check on Jonathan and found him cold and unresponsive. Emergency personnel were summoned and the baby was taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead at 12:28 a.m. on Saturday, April 5.
On Sunday, April 6, Dr. Thomas Bennett, the Iowa State Medical Examiner, performed an autopsy and declared the child’s death a homicide. The cause, Bennett said, was Shaken Baby Syndrome. Jonathan, he concluded, had been violently shaken to death by one or both of his parents.
In July 1997, the couple, who insisted they never shook the baby, were both charged with first-degree murder. Faced with the medical evidence and the potential of long prison terms if convicted of first-degree murder, they pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter on October 2, 1997, although they continued to deny that they had done anything wrong. They each were sentenced to 15 years in prison.
On November 14, 1997, Teresa wrote a letter to attorney Stephen Brennecke asking him to examine the case. Brennecke had successfully defended another Shaken Baby Syndrome case in March of that year. The defendant in that case, Mary Weaver, was accused of killing Melissa Mathes, an 11-month-old girl for whom she was babysitting. She was acquitted at her third trial (the first ended in a hung jury and the second ended in a conviction that was reversed) when Brennecke uncovered medical evidence that the child died of a skull fracture inflicted days before her death. The Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis in that case had also been made by Bennett.
Brennecke sent the case file to Dr. Peter Stephens, an Iowa City pathologist, who studied the records and concluded there was no evidence of shaken baby syndrome. The child had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, Stephens concluded.
Stephens’ report was given to Pottawattamie County Attorney Rick Crowl, who then sent the file to Dr. Jerry Jones, an Omaha forensic pathologist. Jones agreed with Stephens—there was no evidence the baby had been shaken.
On the evening of September 24, 1998, hours after receiving Jones’ report, Crowl called Iowa District Court Judge Timothy O’Grady and requested a hearing the following day. Attorneys for Joel and Teresa were summoned, although Brennecke was out of the country. Crowl did not want to wait.
At the hearing, Jones testified to his findings and the judge was informed that Stephens concurred. Crowl then made a motion to vacate the convictions and to dismiss the charges.
O’Grady granted the motion after a 63-minute hearing.
Teresa and Joel were released from prison on September 28, 1998.
Bennett resigned as medical examiner two weeks after the couple pled guilty in October 1997 amid an investigation of the administration of his office. Meanwhile, at least two other Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnoses made by Bennett had come under fire. In one case, the prosecution, faced with contradictory evidence, declined to bring charges. In the other, the prosecution dismissed the case almost immediately after the trial began.
– Maurice Possley for the National Registry of Exonerations A project Of The Michigan Law School
originally published July 2012
Dr. Thomas Bennett pic: www.billingsgazette.com