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Judging Parents as Murderers on 4 Specks of Blood

Shaken baby syndrome had become a controversial subject nationwide, but in Iowa it was dividing a medical community. The state medical examiner was aggressive in his diagnoses of infants killed from shaking. But as cases multiplied, so did the questions among those who feared that the jailed were innocent.

July 11, 1999|BARRY SIEGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Months had passed, and still Rick Crowl couldn't purge images of the Lehmer baby from his mind.

There'd been no obvious wounds on the 3-month-old, nothing you could see. No signs of massive trauma; no signs of any trauma. No skull fracture, no collarbone bruises, no head injuries, no bleeding in the eyes, no gross bleeding under the scalp. Yet Thomas Bennett, the state medical examiner, had diagnosed shaken-slammed baby syndrome. Thomas Bennett had called Jonathan's death a homicide.

So that's what Crowl had called it too. The prosecutor for Pottawattamie County had gone along with Bennett, even though he'd thought the autopsy report looked mighty thin. He'd filed first-degree murder charges against the Lehmer baby's parents. He'd put Joel Lehmer and Teresa Engberg-Lehmer in state prison for 15 years.

He'd never felt good about it, though. Almost any other prosecutor would savor his victory. Crowl stewed. He had abiding questions. The truth was, he'd almost been waiting for this day.

It was late on April 6, 1998. All afternoon, a defense attorney from halfway across the state had been standing over the prosecutor's copy machine, duplicating the Lehmer file. Crowl watched him now. Stephen Brennecke meant to appeal the Lehmer case. He looked to be a straight-arrow, levelheaded sort.

"You ever handle a case like this before?" Crowl asked.

"Yes, I have," Brennecke said. "The Weaver case."

Crowl knew of the Weaver case. It was another one that involved Thomas Bennett--and another one that raised questions.

Crowl liked and respected Bennett, knowing the state medical examiner to be expert at recognizing the type of indirect brain injuries caused by the shaking of infants. Recently, though, other doctors had started to question publicly some of Bennett's diagnoses. There'd been letters to the editor, letters to state officials. Some had been pretty disturbing.

There'd been claims that Bennett overreached, that he over-diagnosed, that he was overzealous. Where Bennett had found obvious signs of violent abuse, other doctors had found nothing. In one case up in Charles City, they'd stopped a murder trial on the third day of jury selection when prosecutors couldn't find any medical experts to support Bennett's diagnosis. In another over in Decorah, the prosecutor, faced with half a dozen doctors willing to challenge Bennett's diagnosis, had declined to file charges.

The problem, it seemed to Crowl, reached well beyond the state medical examiner. Shaken baby syndrome had become a controversial subject across the country. Certain researchers surmised that 5% to 10% of deaths attributed to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) were actually shaken baby homicides, which meant there might be several hundred undetected baby killings each year in the United States. Yet which of the SIDS cases were the murders?

They debated that question in Crowl's office all the time. Only a small number of babies who die suddenly, without explanation, are homicide victims. To spot abuse without accusing blameless people--that was a tough balancing act, that was a real dilemma.

Crowl was 39, and had been county attorney for eight years. During his tenure, he'd handled five child deaths that involved Bennett's diagnoses. He couldn't help wondering whether he'd been doing the right thing. He certainly didn't want child abusers to walk free. Yet he couldn't bear the notion that he might be putting innocent people in jail.

Crowl studied Brennecke. Slowly, the visiting lawyer fed sheets into the copy machine. There were the police interviews . . . there the hospital log . . . there Tom Bennett's autopsy report.

Just four specks of blood in the skull--that's what had convinced Bennett this was a killing.

"So what do you think about this one?" Crowl asked.

Brennecke looked up. "I don't think this was a shaken baby."

Mother Puts Baby to Sleep, Then Finds Him Not Breathing

Teresa Engberg-Lehmer's story never changed. She fed Jonathan between 7 and 7:30 on the evening of Friday, April 4, 1997, then put the baby down to sleep on a blanket in the back bedroom. She and Joel went to their bedroom. About 11:15 p.m., both parents got up. She made coffee for Joel while he dressed. He left for work, a job delivering bundles of newspapers. She went into the baby's room to give him a bottle. Jonathan was cold, non-responsive. Jonathan wasn't breathing. They didn't have a phone, couldn't afford one. She screamed. She rushed to a neighbor's apartment, asked her to call 911.

The police and hospital logs pick up the story from there. When the baby reached the Jennie Edmundson Hospital emergency room in Council Bluffs, the medical staff saw no signs of physical injury. They also saw no signs of a pulse. They pronounced Jonathan dead at 12:28 a.m. They notified Dr. Scott Blair, the county medical examiner, at 12:53. Blair requested that the baby be sent to Douglas County Hospital--minutes away, just over the Nebraska border in Omaha--for an autopsy.

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