The Michigan Innocence Clinic wins a new hearing for a Port Huron man convicted of Shaken Baby Syndrome
The University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic have successfully argued for a new hearing to hear evidence that Terry Ceasor, a Port Huron man, was convicted based on the faulty theory that the only possible cause of his girlfriend’s 16 month old child’s head injury was violent shaking.
The trial court heard only from the prosecution’s expert, Dr. Holly Gilmer-Hill, a DMC neurosurgeon. The defense failed to hire any experts to support Ceasor’s contention that the child fell from the couch, hitting his head on the coffee table or floor.
In June 2004, Ceasor began dating Cheryl Genna, Brenden Genna’s mother. Genna also had an older daughter, Derian, who was approximately seven-years-old.
On October 3, 2004, the day Brenden sustained his injuries, Genna and Derian left Ceasor’s house around 2:30 pm to take Derian swimming, and were away from the house for approximately an hour-and-a-half.
According to Terry Ceasor’s testimony he brought Brenden out to the living room so the baby could sit on the couch with him while he watched football. Initially, Brenden was relatively inactive, but when Ceasor brought him a jar of Gerber bananas, fruit snacks, and a granola bar from the kitchen, Brenden became excited and began to eat. After cleaning up, and as he was returning from the kitchen, Ceasor saw that Brenden was standing on the couch and facing the TV. Ceasor crawled up to the back of the couch on his hands and knees and he and Brenden began playing a game called “gotcha,” with Ceasor crawling behind the couch and Brenden running across the couch cushions. While they were playing, Ceasor noticed that Brenden’s foot got stuck between the couch cushions a couple of times. Ceasor testified that during their game, Brenden was laughing and they were “having a good time.”
When Brenden stopped playing in order to drink from his sippy cup, Ceasor “figured he was occupied enough” and stepped away to go to the bathroom. However, as he was urinating, Ceasor heard a thud that sounded like “two hits.” Upon hearing the thud Ceasor ran out to the living room. There, he found Brenden wedged between the couch and the coffee table. Ceasor described it as follows;
“It wasn’t like he was playing in this position. And, um, when I came out and saw him there, his head was, his head was flung back as far as the neck could go. And when I picked up [Brenden] he was like, it was like he was dead and he was like limp noodles . . . . I tried talking to him. I sprayed some water off my hands that were wet. Um, I touched his head. I, um, I tried everything I could do. I was calling his name.”
At that moment Genna and Derian came home from the pool. Rather than call an ambulance, Ceasor and Genna decided to use Genna’s car to drive Brenden to the emergency room at Port Huron Hospital, which was located a couple of minutes away from Ceasor’s house.
Brenden regained consciousness shortly after they arrived at Port Huron Hospital. The medical staff took a CAT scan. The CAT scan revealed that Brenden had a subdural hematoma with a “slight mass effect,” meaning that the blood beneath Brenden’s dura had “started to push the brain to the opposite side” of his skull. Brendan was transferred to Children’s Hospital in Detroit.
At some point during Brenden’s hospitalization, Genna noted a “mark on the back of his head” and that he had bitten his tongue.
At 1 p.m. on October 4, the ophthalmology exam was postponed when the attending physician instructed that the eyes not be dilated. However, at 9:10 a.m. on October 5, a child protection team note mentions dot/blot/flame retinal hemorrhages. It is unclear how many hemorrhages were seen, where they were located or who saw them. These are all important factors when evaluating retinal hemorrhages.
The prosecution’s primary expert witness was Dr. Gilmer-Hill. Her testimony was that a subdural hematoma and retinal hemorrhages are inconsistent with a short fall from the couch and that they are “diagnostic” of Shaken Baby Syndrome.
The defense failed to call any medical experts to refute Dr. Gilmer-Hill’s opinion.
Terry Ceasor was convicted of first degree child abuse in 2005 and served until October 2009 when he was paroled. He is still fighting to clear his name. The full court opinion can be read here. (pdf)