Dr Waney Squier Shaken Baby Syndrome Whistleblowers Persecuted doctors Pathologists
Expert witness on “shaken baby syndrome” faces misconduct charge
6 October 2015
Accusations levelled against consultant pathologist Waney Squier include failing to pay “due regard to the views of other experts” (Image: CBC.CA/Fifth)
A senior British pathologist whose research has identified innocent causes for symptoms previously thought to be caused solely by child abuse is facing a disciplinary hearing over her work. The charges relate to her role as an expert witness in court cases involving non-accidental head injury (NAHI), formerly known as “shaken-baby syndrome”.
Waney Squier, a consultant neuropathologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, is the second “shaken baby” expert witness in five years whose work has been called into question by the UK General Medical Council. Hearings examining Squier’s case began on 5 October in Manchester. Marta Cohen, a pathologist at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, was summoned in 2010 and later cleared of any wrongdoing.
Squier appeared as an expert witness in several court cases between 2007 and 2010 involving allegations of NAHI. She is one of several researchers worldwide who have challenged a long-standing assumption in such cases: that a triad of symptoms – haemorrhages on the surface of the brain, haemorrhages in the retinas, and a swollen brain – is unequivocal evidence of abusive behaviour.
Through their research on the brains of dead infants, Squier and her colleagues have discovered that these symptomscan occur through innocent causes, including difficulty breathing and infections.
Squier is now being brought before the UK Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service’s fitness to practise panel. Thesummary of her charges alleges she gave evidence outside her field of expertise, failed to be objective and unbiased when delivering evidence in court, and failed to pay “due regard to the views of other experts”.
“It is alleged that Dr Squier’s actions were misleading, irresponsible, deliberately misleading, dishonest, and were likely to bring the reputation of the medical profession into disrepute,” says the summary. The hearing began yesterday and is expected to last six months.
Squier has not spoken publicly about the hearing, but other pathologists have described the case as a “witch hunt” aimed at preventing her appearing as an expert witness in future.
The GMC would not disclose its reasons for pursuing the case against Squier, but transcripts of a talk in 2010 at theEleventh International Conference on Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma in Atlanta, Georgia, by Detective Inspector Colin Welsh of the Metropolitan Police reveal the Met’s deep frustration at losing child abuse cases, listing defence expert witness testimony as the “top of the list” of reasons for losses in 2008 and 2009.
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police said this week that following a high-profile acquittal of a defendant in a “shaken baby” case in 2008, prosecution bodies met with the Metropolitan Police to discuss how to manage the impact of contradictory expert witness evidence. Following these discussions, a now-defunct body called the National Policing Improvement Agency sent a report “regarding two doctors” to the GMC.
“The Metropolitan Police Service cooperated with a request from the GMC in June 2010 to provide any relevant information,” said the spokeswoman.
Since then, in March 2011, the UK Crown Prosecution Service issued new guidance on the investigation of non-accidental head injury cases, which states that its “policy is to resist challenges to the triad diagnosis” of NAHI.
Controversy over the validity of the triad remains. In August, an Irish nanny called Aisling McCarthy was freed by a court in Massachusetts, having spent two-and-a-half years in jail for the alleged murder of Rehma Sabir, a 1-year-old infant in her care. The charges against her were dropped after a state medical examiner reviewed the medical evidence and reversed the original verdict that she had shaken the child to death.
Article amended on 7 October 2015
Correction: This article has been changed to make it clear that it is the UK Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service that hears the cases about doctors’ fitness to practise filed by the General Medical Council.