Phoenix, AZ – Drayton Witt was convicted 10 years ago in the murder of his 4-month-old son, Steven. The court found Witt guilty of shaking the baby boy to death, causing bleeding in the baby’s brain and behind his eyes, and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
Witt, however, has maintained his innocence since the day he and the baby’s mother, Maria, first brought Steven to the hospital in 2002.
Now, prosecutors have given up on efforts to retry the man for the 2002 death, and Witt has been released from jail on new medical evidence. This week, an Arizona judge dismissed the charges against Witt with prejudice, meaning that Witt will never go back to prison for baby Steven’s death. Even though new medical evidence showed that Steven died of natural causes and Witt was released from prison, prosecutors had immediately begun to put together a new case against the father in an effort to send him back to prison. Now, Witt and his wife, Maria, can get on with their lives.
Steven was a sickly baby from his birth, medical records indicate. At birth, the baby’s umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck, and, a few weeks later, he had his first bout of fever and severe vomiting. When Steven was almost four months old, his mother Maria took him to the emergency room where the baby was diagnosed with pneumonia. After his first dose of antibiotics, “one of his eyes couldn’t focus, and he went limp. He threw up and started shaking the next morning.” Maria and her then-boyfriend Witt rushed him to the hospital where the baby had a grand mal seizure. Witt, although not Steven’s biological father, gave Steven his last name and was helping Maria raise him and his own son.
Young Steven continued having seizures and, according to his mother, just “wasn’t healthy.” A few weeks after the seizures began, Witt was watching Steven while Maria worked. Steven began having another seizure. He picked up Maria at work, and they drove the baby to the hospital. On the way, the baby had a major seizure, and it took hospital staff 32 minutes to revive the infant. Baby Steven died the next day.
Despite Steven’s medical history, doctors saw the typical signs of shaken baby syndrome: subdural and retinal bleeding. Witt was charged with murdering his son.
Court documents seeking to exonerate Witt state:
“This is a Shaken Baby Syndrome (“SBS”) prosecution. That means it is a prosecution based on a scientific hypothesis that has crumbled over the last decade. In 2002, the State and its medical experts invoked SBS to convict Drayton Witt of shaking his baby son to death. They claimed it was a reliable diagnosis that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Witt violently shook his son even though: the baby had been sick his whole life and even hospitalized for a week with seizures less than a month before he died; the baby had no bruises, grip marks, or other outward sign of abuse; and the baby had no focal lesions on his brain to indicate whiplash-like trauma. Today, the medical examiner and overwhelming scientific and medical evidence tell us that the SBS diagnosis in this case was plainly wrong, yet the State stubbornly persists.”
Witt, 31, was released from prison in May, and this week has been officially exonerated of the any involvement in his son’s death.
“I can start my life over again,” said the innocent father, adding that he had not been looking forward to the possibility of a retrial. “I would rather the state came to their senses and do the right thing instead of have to go into court and fight and win,” he said. “They did the right thing finally. They did the wrong thing for so long, then they finally did the right thing.”
Slate writer Emily Bazelon notes that, since the labeling of shaken baby syndrome in the 1970s, parents and investigators alike struggle with the notion of claiming murder when medical findings could indicate natural causes of death. She writes:
“What I can tell you is that the fight over this diagnosis will continue to be intense and unremitting. For prosecutors and for doctors who treat abused children, the prospect of adults getting away with doing awful harm to babies is appalling. At the same time, for doctors who are skeptical of the theory that shaking alone can cause these internal injuries and for the defense lawyers who think their clients have been wrongly accused, the idea that innocent people could be in prison is just as troubling. In the end, Drayton Witt … will look like the easy case in a sea of harder ones.”