MARYSVILLE — The Snohomish County associate medical examiner took extra steps to determine how a 4-month-old girl died in February given the ongoing controversy among medical and legal experts surrounding “shaken-baby syndrome,” according to new court documents.
In the end, Dr. Stanley Adams ruled the girl’s Feb. 29 death a homicide.
Adams concluded that the baby suffered non-accidental trauma to her head and neck, causing her brain to be deprived of oxygen. The doctor made his ruling after additional testing and consultation with a Pierce County pathologist and a neuropathologist from the University of Washington School of Medicine.
Adams noted the classic symptoms: bleeding of the brain, or subdural hematomas, and eye hemorrhages. He also is aware that some forensic experts are challenging the science behind the diagnosis of abusive head trauma, formerly known as “shaken-baby syndrome,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Matt Baldock wrote in court papers. Recent research suggests that injuries to the spine are more conclusive evidence of abuse, Baldock added.
Adams took measures to have the baby’s spinal cord closely examined. The upper cervical cord showed signs of severe damage, which likely would have paralyzed the baby’s diaphragm and caused respiratory arrest, according to documents recently filed in Superior Court.
Baldock on Thursday charged the girl’s babysitter Cheyanne Jarrell with first-degree manslaughter. The deputy prosecutor alleges that Jarrell’s reckless actions caused the baby’s death.
Jarrell, 22, has denied hurting the child. She is scheduled to answer to the charge later this month. She remains free pending trial, and prosecutors aren’t expected to request bail. Baldock will ask that she be prohibited from having unsupervised contact with children.
Investigators allege that Jarrell injured the baby, identified in court papers only by the initials K.W., while watching her Feb. 26 in Jarrell’s Marysville home.
The baby’s mother told police that Jarrell started babysitting her infant daughter in early January. The family had known the babysitter for several years, and Jarrell had previously cared for the woman’s other daughter. In February, Jarrell also was caring for her own 4-month-old daughter.
A few weeks before K.W. died, Jarrell allegedly complained that her charge was being fussy and consulted with the mother about changing formulas. The baby’s mother was surprised by the complaint and asked her husband and Jarrell’s mother if they’d witnessed the girl being fussy. They both hadn’t, but her husband remembered hearing Jarrell say something about being frustrated with the infant, Baldock wrote
The woman told police she started looking at other daycare options. She also spoke with Jarrell and suggested that she try swaddling K.W. and giving her a pacifier. The woman checked in with Jarrell a few days later, and the babysitter said things were better with the baby, according to court papers.
The girl was “happy and healthy” on Feb. 25. The next morning her mother fed her a bottle and dropped her off with Jarrell around 6 a.m. About five hours later, Jarrell called 911 to report that the baby wasn’t breathing. Medics found Jarrell’s 18-year-old sister attempting life-saving measures.
Paramedics continued CPR and after a few minutes they detected a pulse. The baby eventually was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Doctors determined that K.W. had bleeding on the both sides of her brain and in her eyes. The girl was unresponsive to treatment and died three days later.
Marysville police detective Craig Bartl later interviewed Jarrell, who didn’t offer an explanation for the baby’s injuries, Baldock wrote. She told police the girl had been fussy the day before.
“Cheyanne told Detective Bartl that she was so frustrated she called her mother for advice about what to do. Her mother didn’t answer her call so she left a message,” Baldock wrote.
Jarrell told police the baby was asleep when her mom dropped her off on Feb. 26. Jarrell said she offered K.W. a bottle when she woke up fussy. Jarrell said she swaddled the girl and placed her in a child seat.
Jarrell allegedly told police she was seated on the couch when she heard the baby gasp. She said the infant wasn’t breathing and the child’s heart was beating rapidly. Jarrell reported that she unswaddled the girl, picked her up and ran to her sister’s bedroom for help, Baldock wrote.
Her sister started CPR while Jarrell called 911. The injury likely would have occurred within minutes of the call, according to court documents.
Detectives did not turn up any evidence that K.W. had been sick or injured before Feb. 26 that would account for her death, court papers said.
Doctors explained that “when an infant suffers a whiplash injury or trauma due to intentional shaking, the nerves in the spinal cord that control the diaphragm can be disrupted or severed,” Baldock wrote.
“The doctors said that K.W. would not have been lucid or alert for any significant period of time after sustaining the injuries that she did and she certainly would not have been able to take a bottle,” he added.
Police arrested Jarrell last month for investigation of second-degree murder. She allegedly told police: “I shouldn’t be in this situation. I didn’t do anything.”
Public defender Cassie Trueblood started working with Jarrell months ago when it became clear that she was a suspect in the death. Trueblood last month called into question the science behind “shaken-baby syndrome.”
It “has been widely debunked across the country,” Trueblood said. “As recently as July 14 courts have overturned convictions based solely on a medical diagnosis of ‘shaken-baby syndrome.’ This case is that exact kind of case.”
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org