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Maria Mendez, in blue, surrounded by her legal team from Project for the Innocent at Loyola Law School. Photo source.

by Terri LaPoint
Health Impact News

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that a grandmother was freed from prison this month after Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent became involved.

Maria Mendez spent the last 11 years of her life serving a 25-year sentence for the death of her 9-month-old grandson. She had been convicted of Shaken Baby Syndrome, but attorneys and law students who fight for people who are wrongfully convicted took up her case, pointing out medical evidence that was not considered by the court.

In most medical kidnapping stories we cover, no criminal charges are ever filed. The children are seized, placed into foster care – usually with strangers, and the parents sometimes lose custody permanently, even though the parents or grandparents are never charged with any type of a crime.

The rare cases of Child Protective Services involvement, in which someone faces criminal charges, usually fall in one of three categories:

  1. Shaken Baby Syndrome
  2. Multiple broken bones
  3. Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy/Medical Child Abuse

In each of the three, there is frequently a valid medical reason for the child’s injuries, but that reason is often never presented as evidence in court.

In these cases, as well as in many cases that do not involve criminal charges, there is almost always a Child Abuse Specialist doctor involved.

As we recently reported, courts frequently ignore the reports of medical experts and specialists, elevating the reports of the Pediatric Child Abuse Specialist to a higher status than that of other experts.

See:

Pediatric Child Abuse “Experts” are NOT Experts in Anything

There are thousands of cases nationwide in which someone went to prison for child abuse based largely, or even solely, upon the testimony of Child Abuse Specialist doctors while other valid medical explanations are ignored in court.

Programs such as Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent and The Innocence Project seek to free people who are wrongfully convicted of crimes. Hundreds of people across the United States have been exonerated through the efforts of such programs.

Many convictions of Shaken Baby Syndrome, like that of Maria Mendez, have been thrown out or retried in recent years.

Judge orders release of woman who served 11 years behind bars in grandson’s death

Maria Mendez was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Her appellate attorney, who believed Mendez had been wrongfully convicted, contacted the Project for the Innocent at Loyola Law School, which eventually championed Mendez’s case. The lawyers tracked down medical records, including a CT scan of the brain that Mendez’s trial attorney had not received, said Paula Mitchell, one of Mendez’s attorneys. Several medical experts reviewed the case, Mitchell said, and concluded that the evidence suggested an accidental death.

In a 2016 declaration, Dr. Frank Sheridan, the longtime chief medical examiner for San Bernardino County, wrote that he was the only medical expert who testified on behalf of Mendez at her trial and that her attorney never asked his views on many aspects of the case.

“It is my steadfast belief that Maria Mendez … was wrongfully convicted,” he wrote. “This case has haunted me for years.”

In court documents, another physician who reviewed the case, Roland Auer, wrote that an accidental fall a couple of days before Emmanuel collapsed could have caused cardiac arrest.

“Dr. Berkowitz’s opinion that the child’s head injury was inflicted … rather than accidental is unsupportable by any scientific evidence,” Auer wrote.

During a recent hearing, records show, a doctor with a specialty in pediatric radiology challenged the one- to two-hour trauma window Berkowitz testified about at trial. But in an interview with The Times this week, Berkowitz defended her assessment.

“It still sounds right to me,” the doctor said, adding that she remains confident the baby’s death resulted from abuse.

In his 15-page report on the case, Auer wrote critically of the long-accepted tenets of shaken baby syndrome, saying that impact on a baby’s brain looks the same “whether abusive or not.”

“There is no way of inferring abuse,” Auer wrote, “and the non-science has been called out in recent publications.”

At least 15 people convicted of injuring or killing an infant by violent shaking have since been exonerated, according to a national registry of wrongful convictions.

According to another national database, last updated in 2015, at least 3,000 criminal cases related to shaken baby syndrome have been filed in the U.S. over the years.

Last month, in the middle of an evidentiary hearing where medical experts testified about Mendez’s case, Mitchell said prosecutors made her client an offer: They would agree to have her old conviction vacated if she pleaded no contest to two lower charges.

To avoid more prison time, Mitchell said, her client agreed, pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter and child abuse. A judge accepted the plea last month, records show, and ordered Mendez’s immediate release.

The district attorney’s office remains “confident in the validity of the medical opinions and the medical evidence that supported the prosecution of the case,” said district attorney spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales. Mendez’s plea, the spokeswoman said, “was effectively an admission that she is not factually innocent.”

Although the new charges lead to the same legal outcome — a conviction — Mitchell emphasized that her client had pleaded “no contest” rather than “guilty” to them.

It was Mendez’s way, Mitchell said, of saying, “I don’t want to fight this anymore.”

Read the full article at Los Angeles Times.

Project for the Innocent

Loyola Law School is located in Los Angeles, California. According to the website:

Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent (LPI) is dedicated to the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted. Loyola Law School students are the heart and soul of the clinic, which is yearlong.  If, after a thorough investigation of a case, a true claim of innocence is provable, clinic students will help draft a habeas petition so that the case can be litigated in court.

The Project does not accept phone calls from people seeking legal advice, but wrongly convicted individuals themselves may inquire about legal representation by writing to:

Loyola Project for the Innocent
919 Albany Street
Los Angeles CA 90015

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