Science clears mom in shaken baby case 18 years later

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A West Michigan woman is free after serving 18 years behind bars for the death of her 11-month-old daughter.

Tonia Miller had her conviction out of Calhoun County reversed. She was found guilty in a shaken baby syndrome case in 2002, but her lawyer says more advanced science found the baby died from pneumonia.

News 8 is learning there could be more of these reversals coming soon. This is the second shaken baby syndrome case reversed in Calhoun County in the past few months.

“If you could imagine being accused of killing your child and then spending 18 years in prison over it,” said Miller’s lawyer, Mary Chartier with Chartier & Nyamfukudza.

Left with no time to grieve at 19 years old, Miller was forced to fight for a life as a free woman. Miller, now 38 years old, won the battle on Monday thanks to work by the Michigan Innocence Clinic and her trial attorney Chartier.

“The science changed,” Chartier said. “And I don’t even like to say the science changed, because the science has always been flawed.”

Chartier says shaken baby cases, which are now called abusive head trauma cases, were based on three factors: brain swelling, bleeding at the top of the brain and bleeding from the eyes.

Previously, investigators pointed the finger at the last person who was with the child, even though bleeding can take time to appear. In Miller’s case, her daughter Alicia Duff had undiagnosed pneumonia.

“(Miller) had gone to the doctor and asked for help, and she was essentially told she was a paranoid parent. She was a young parent, children are fussy, children don’t want to eat and go home,” Chartier said.

While at home, Miller says her baby was struggling to breathe, so she shook the child to clear her airways.

“Sometimes a child dying is a tragedy, but it doesn’t mean that someone has done something criminally wrong,” Chartier said.

Chartier says this doesn’t dismiss all incidents of child abuse but says these cases need to be looked at carefully.

“My hope is that prosecutors take a good long look at these cases but also, we look at the people who are still incarcerated. Miss Miller lost 18 years of her life,” Chartier said.

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