Doctor who stood up for parents accused of killing their children and challenged existence of the syndrome could be struck off over her testimony.
A leading doctor who acted as an expert witness for parents accused of killing their children faces being struck off, amid claims that she is the victim of a police witch hunt.
Dr Waney Squier, a paediatric neuropathologist, is due to appear before the General Medical Council (GMC) tomorrow accused of “bias” and “dishonesty” after disputing the existence of “shaken baby syndrome” in a number of court cases.
For decades, the pathologist, who works at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, appeared as a prosecution witness against parents accused of killing their children.
She argued that a combination of three brain injuries — swelling of the brain, bleeding between the skull and brain and bleeding in the retina — was sufficient to determine that the death resulted from a child being violently shaken.
But more than a decade ago, amid the emergence of research disputing the mainstream theory, Dr Squier had a change of heart, becoming convinced that such symptoms were not conclusive.
Fearing that reliance on the argument had led to miscarriages of justice, she became a key expert witness defending parents who said their children’s deaths were the result of natural tragedies.
The case opening tomorrow could see Dr Squier, a pathologist for more than 30 years, removed from the medical register, for the opinions she has expressed in court.
The charges against her — of which few details have been released — have shocked several medical and legal specialists, who believe the action stems from a campaign to silence doubts about the theory, and secure more convictions for child murder.
Dr Marta Cohen, a paediatric pathologist at Sheffield Children’s Hospital who shares Dr Squier’s views, said: “I believe this humble, clever, courageous woman is the victim of a witch hunt by the Metropolitan Police to stop her from being an expert witness which may risk them losing their case.”
Dr Squier, 66, has devoted almost all of her professional life to the study of infant brains, appearing in courts around the world in cases where babies had died after suffering brain injury. In the UK, around 250 cases involving claims of shaken baby syndrome go to court a year.
Until 2001, she agreed with the standard medical view that the combination of three key symptoms, known as the “triad”, should lead to a conviction. But subsequent research led her to doubt that these symptoms alone were sufficient verification of guilt.
She came to believe that shaken baby syndrome may not exist, and that the triad signs could occur naturally in a baby. Dr Squier suggests that bleeding into the membranes in the brain could be a mechanism in young babies, which is intended to protect the brain itself from haemorrhage as it is exposed to pressure during delivery.
The view, shared by a minority of pathologists, is at odds with mainstream theories developed in the 1970s.
In 2000, Lorraine Harris, of Derbyshire, was jailed for manslaughter, after Dr Squier concluded her four-month-old baby Patrick had been shaken to death. But in a 2005 appeal, the pathologist was called as an expert witness for the defence, saying she was now convinced the criteria she had used to define whether shaken baby syndrome had occurred were wrong. The conviction was quashed.
Around the world, the arguments became heated. The case of British nanny Louise Woodward — found guilty in 1997 of shaking eight-month-old Matthew Eappen to death in Boston, Massachusetts — was pivotal in bringing arguments over shaken baby syndrome into the public eye. She was jailed for 15 years but the conviction for second degree murder was later reduced to involuntary manslaughter.
Dr Squier became the target of criticism. This culminated in a 2009 case in which a High Court judge, Justice Eleanor King, accused her of speaking “contrary to the mainstream of current thinking”. As a result, in April 2010, police referred the doctor to the GMC. Around the same time, Scotland Yard police are alleged to have undermined the pathologist and other expert witnesses blamed for failure to convict in cases of shaken baby syndrome.
At a US conference in 2010, Det Insp Colin Welsh, then of the Met’s child abuse investigation command, was reported to have suggested police would investigate such experts and report them to their professional bodies “to see if we turn up anything”.
Since then, the pathologist has been rejected by a number of courts. In 2011, Dr Squier said: “If I am blocked from giving evidence in court, defendants already having to cope with the tragic death of a baby will not get the benefit of the new science. Equally, if the courts fail to accept that the mainstream view of 30 years ago can no longer be relied upon, there will be serious miscarriages of justice.”
The pathologist said many convictions for shaken baby syndrome relied on confessions. “Some police grind those accused down interviewing them for hours while their baby is dying in hospital,” she said. “Under such duress people can confess to anything.”
Tomorrow, a GMC fitness to practise panel will consider charges that between 2007 and 2010, the pathologist failed to be “objective and unbiased”, was “dishonest”, and “brought the reputation of the medical profession into disrepute” while acting as an expert witness in court cases.
Last week, the GMC had yet to pass on to the pathologist’s lawyer full details of her alleged dishonesty. Dr Squier said: “I refute the charges absolutely. I will be putting up a very robust defence but I am unable to discuss it further at the moment.”
If she is cleared, it could throw the findings of thousands of cases into question.
Prof Margaret Esiri, emeritus professor of neuropathology at the University of Oxford, who has worked with Dr Squier since the 1980s, said: “Her findings do make it more difficult for the police to prosecute.
They would rather evidence was cut and dried so they can get their convictions.”
Bill Bache, a solicitor who has defended families in cases where shaken baby syndrome was alleged, said he was “flabbergasted” by the charges.
Clive Stafford Smith, a civil rights lawyer and director of the charity Reprieve, said: “Much shaken baby and battered child testimony is extremely dubious, and should be vigorously questioned.”
The Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, which manages such GMC hearings, declined to comment. The Metropolitan Police said: “We are aware of a report registered by the then National Police Improvement Agency with the GMC in 2010 about a doctor. The Metropolitan Police cooperated with a request from the GMC to provide relevant information.”