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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

He declared his nonchalance over the Lehmers' release: "I don't care about that. If Pottawattamie County wants to give them a medal, that's OK, as long as they do it using all the facts."

Three days later he leveled even stronger fire in a Des Moines Register opinion-page essay: "My respect for and belief in our judicial system have led me to maintain my silence during these attacks. These malicious attacks now have overstepped all bounds of professionalism and demand a response, in the media and the courts. . . . Why should any medical person subject himself to this abuse? . . . There is a sickness in Iowa. . . . Children in Iowa will suffer. . . ."

For weeks after that, Bennett remained on the attack.

He took aim at the news media: "Glitzy news columns . . . Geraldo Rivera style . . . Pack of dogs."

Taking Aim at Prosecutors, Doctors

He took aim at weak-willed prosecutors: "To go into court and offer your opinion, you have to have conviction and courage. When those using your services don't have the courage to stand with you, you end up standing alone. Politicians will do that. . . ."

He took aim at other doctors: "Every time you go into a courtroom, there will be experts on both sides. Many testify outside their fields. Many testify with no basis. . . . "

Most intriguing, Bennett continued to profess bewilderment over the startling disparity between his judgments and those of so many colleagues. It seemed to baffle him as much as it did Jerry Jones that he saw acute abuse where others saw nothing.

"I don't know why," he said more than once when asked about this disparity. "I just don't know why. . . . I ask the same question. . . . I don't know why. . . ."

Not until early December did Bennett finally drop this stance.

For all his contentious impact in Iowa, Bennett had always tried to hold himself above the fray. He'd regularly provided vivid quotes to reporters, but only in bursts that defended more than explained. These weren't matters to be argued in the newspapers, he declared more than once. These were matters for the courtroom and the medical journals.

For weeks, Bennett had been hearing pleas to engage in a more extended discussion. For weeks, he'd resisted, saying, "I'm so tired of being hammered." Finally, near the end of the year, he reluctantly agreed to receive a visitor in Billings.

He lives there with his wife, Melodee Hanes, a former assistant Polk County attorney who, as it happens, specialized in child abuse and helped organize Polk County's child abuse trauma team. The first night, Hanes came to dinner alone, since her husband had been called to an out-of-state hearing. The next morning, Bennett himself showed up for breakfast. Neither displayed the angry tone evident in some of their public statements. It's hard to demonize someone who, like Bennett, grows moist-eyed with hurt when his critics' comments are read to him. It's hard also to confront someone who speaks passionately, as Bennett does, about "the worth of a child's life."

Bennett and Hanes resemble the affluent professionals they are: They enjoy cooking, they like good wine, they ski, they share a large comfortable home with the three youngest of their combined six children. He teaches and performs autopsies; she is thinking of signing on with a local prosecutor as head of a new child abuse unit. In conversations, they jokingly referred to Bennett as the "defrocked pathologist." They also laughed at suggestions--heard often in Iowa--that she has influenced his diagnoses. "Right," Hanes agreed. "I told him no sex unless he calls them shaken babies."

Most striking, they now made no pretense that Bennett's contested diagnoses reflected mainstream thinking in forensic pathology. "Tom's on the cutting edge," Hanes declared at the first night's dinner. "He wouldn't say it, though. He's too much the plain country boy."

The next morning, Bennett did say it.

Over cups of coffee in a cafe, as light snow fell in downtown Billings, Bennett sketched diagrams, produced journal articles, recited history and told his story.

It began with the Polk County trauma team, he explained. Then it really coalesced around 1996. That's when the pediatric specialist Randy Alexander asked him to come talk to Iowa state child protection workers. Bennett started to study Alexander's work. He started thinking and reading and attending seminars. He found himself conferring with doctors outside his own field--doctors who were inclined to diagnose shaken babies using criteria other than gross bleeding in the brain and eye.

There were radiologists who thought microscopic tears in the brain signaled a shaken baby. There were pediatricians who thought brain swelling alone, without signs of bleeding, signaled a shaken baby. Some were involved with Bennett's own multidisciplinary team in Iowa. Was he going to just ignore these other specialists? Some were on the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on child abuse and neglect. Had you seen their pivotal 1993 paper?

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