Media Bias and a Manslaughter Conviction

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Speaking of prescience, I must admit that when I wrote my recent post on media bias, I had no idea that the father accused of abusing and killing his infant son was sentenced on the 18th. So, understandably, Moshe, Rabbi Natan Slifkin and others want to know how a sentence of 6 years plus 2 years suspended fits with what I’ve said.

Indeed, where is the media bias if we see the father was found guilty, and is going to jail for six years? Doesn’t this mean that everything the media reported was correct all along, and now the father is getting the punishment befitting a parent who abused and murdered his child?

Well, no. Not at all. The more I look into it, the less I understand how the sentence could possibly be adequate for what the media told us was the crime.

Let’s not forget — according to the most charitable version of the father’s actions, he dropped his child and this resulted in the child’s death. The father never claimed he tripped — he says he fell asleep. Well, if a person falls asleep driving and kills someone, that’s manslaughter. When a father is holding his baby, it’s the same thing. Even if, despite the judge’s statement, he had absolutely no idea what he was doing… we cannot say he was entirely innocent. But the point is that this sentence is much more in accordance with the conclusion that the father did something irresponsible, rather than brutal.

To start off, Rabbi Slifkin quotes the JPost as having said something very different than what I said from the same source in my earlier post. This is because Natan is quoting their new article about the sentencing, while I was quoting the much older article about his conviction.

Thus Natan quotes from the following line in the JPost: “[the father] was previously found guilty of manslaughter for repeatedly biting, beating, pinching and punching his son Refael because he ‘did not accept him’ due to a congenital defect in the child’s neck muscles.”

The above are the same charges which the father says he was coerced to sign, but were never true — embellished with elements that the police spokeswoman admitted on the stand she could not provide a source for, and which at one point she even accused the media of making up. The earlier Jpost article about his conviction made no such connection between the judge’s decision and what the father supposedly admitted to police. If indeed the above was the reason for the judge’s decision, why did the Jerusalem Post say something very different at the time?

Furthermore, the Judge’s statement that the father’s behavior was “reckless,” rather than intentional, is completely inconsistent with the charge that the father repeatedly abused his son. Repeated abuse indicates intent, and when it results in death this usually leads to a charge of second-degree murder.

The case that made “shaken baby syndrome” a common term in the United States was the case of British au pair Louise Woodward, who was 19 when 8-month-old Matthew Eappen died in her care. She was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder. The judge reduced the conviction to manslaughter several days later, because “Woodward had acted out of ‘confusion, inexperience, frustration, immaturity and some anger, but not malice in the legal sense.'” He was probably influenced, as well, by polygraph tests which showed her innocence. In our case, are we to believe that “repeatedly biting, beating, pinching and punching” an infant is similarly merely “confusion, inexperience, and frustration?”

All of this leads to the most crucial point: if the father had repeatedly abused his son, he should have received a far longer sentence. Six years for a “reckless” manslaughter conviction is simply far too lenient for what the police and media have been telling us the father did.

Two nights ago, a charity collector came to my door. His son-in-law fell into debt, and in an effort to get some money he went to America to teach, using his brother’s passport. The Israeli authorities recognized the deception upon his return to Ben-Gurion, and he’s now sitting a 4-6 year sentence for using his brother’s passport. So contrary to what Moshe implies, 6 years in jail is entirely consistent with manslaughter, aka negligent homicide. It’s not at all a heavy sentence.

Louise Woodward was 19. For second-degree murder, she would have received a minimum of 15 years to life — indeed, a 19-year-old Glasgow man was sentenced to 14 years for a shaken-baby homicide. In case after case, US and International courts have convicted caretakers of second-degree murder in shaken baby cases, especially where there was a history of intentional abuse, even by 19-year-olds.

The judge said she was being lenient because “we have to consider that this is a young man, who has never before been given any responsibilities besides studying the Torah.” This has not excused other 19-year-olds from second-degree murder convictions, and, on the other hand, the judge also noted a complete lack of remorse from the father. [Either he’s innocent and focused upon proving it, or he’s a truly cold individual — and many, including Meir Porush, candidate for mayor of Jerusalem in recent elections, have come forward to tell the court that the latter is untrue.] The defense attorney called the sentence “harsh” and said he would appeal to the Supreme Court. From what the media has told us, this wasn’t a harsh sentence at all — more like a slap on the wrist.

All of the above leads to the conclusion that the Judge did not believe the father was guilty of repeated abuse of his young son. Had the judge sided with the police, we would not have to share her opinion — but, apparently, she didn’t. Instead she said it was “reasonable to believe that there was awareness of the possible fatal outcome,” but it was “reckless.” The conviction and sentence are not at all commensurate with what the media has so loudly informed us was the crime committed.

The science of Shaken Baby Syndrome is not at all clear. Dr Patrick Barnes, the prosecution’s star medical witness in the Woodward case, reversed his opinion and wrote in a published paper that “There is certainly, in retrospect, reasonable doubt.” In our case, there was a clash of medical witnesses — with several, including one initially asked to aid the family, testifying the child was abused, while Israel’s Chief Medical Examiner, Prof. Yehudah Hiss (possibly the least popular medical professional in the eyes of Israel’s Orthodox community), testified that “there was no evidence of mutilation or intentional murder.”

The judge’s decision is a reasonable sentence for a father who was negligent in the handling of his baby son, resulting in the child’s death. It is unduly harsh if we believe this was a terrible accident, and take into account the role played by the ER staff in the negative outcome. But it is a ridiculously light punishment for what the media tells us the father did.

So do you believe the media is giving us a full and honest account?

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9 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    If the evidence is inconclusive, the accused should walk free. No more guessing games.

  2. Robert Lebovits says:

    Noam writes,”Based on the fragments of details published in this case, it is very doubtful that the child died from a mere ‘drop’ “.
    Isn’t that precisely the author’s point, that the details provided – or excluded – from sensational stories often mislead the reader to conclusions that later prove to be false? Whatever sort of president we have for the next four years, it is undeniable that the mainstream media cannot be relied upon for unbiased reporting. The Pew Center studies have exposed consistent slants that cannot be written off simply as “poor journalism”. And it IS worse in Israel where a David Halevy will openly boast of withholding information from the public so as to improve the chances of concessions being given to the Palestinians.
    Does this issue belong in Cross-Currents? In regard to the content of the stories, perhaps not. But given that we are often quick to judge the (alleged) behavior of accused wrongdoers in the frum world based primarily on what we read or hear in the media it is very appropriate to be reminded that stories are often revised as more becomes known. Maybe we do “circle the wagons” when we are confronted with awful tales about our community. Yet it’s just as problematic to suspend one’s own critical thinking so as to avoid the appearance of sectarianism. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re NOT out to get you.

  3. Noam says:

    I spent 7 years as a resident covering neurosurgical emergencies at a pediatric hospital. It is very difficult, if not near impossible, for a baby to suffer severe brain injury from being ‘dropped’ because the care-taker fell asleep. If one makes the rational assumption that the caretaker did not fall asleep standing up, and was sitting, the distance to the floor is just not that great. I cannot recall even one child just brought to the er, not to mention dying, from the trauma of being dropped from a sitting position.

    “Shaken baby syndrome” is usually applied when there is lots of brain trauma without significant external signs of trauma. various hypotheses have been advanced as to how this can occur. One of the most compelling is that there was significant trauma, it just isn’t as obvious as one would expect. That in fact ‘shaken baby syndrome’ occurs when the shaking results in banging the baby’s head against a hard object. Another proposal can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18173622?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DiscoveryPanel.Pubmed_Discovery_RA&linkpos=2&log$=relatedreviews&logdbfrom=pubmed

    A very common warning sign of child abuse in the er is when the injuries to the child are way out of proportion to the history supplied. One example would be if the history given is the child fell out of the arms while someone was sleeping, and the child dies from brain injuries. Well trained or experienced pediatric er staff are very attuned to this sort of disconnect, and their instincts are frequently correct.

    Based on the fragements of details published in this case, it is very doubtful that the child died from a mere ‘drop.’ If that is the history given, it is very likely that the child died from abuse. However, in many cases abuse is hard to prove, and obviously not every child who dies from head trauma has been abused. Given the lack of absolutely certain evidence, it is reasonable to give a lighter sentence than one would if there was more certainty. On the other hand, given the facts at hand, it is much more likely than not that abuse was involved in the poor child’s death. The lighter sentence probably reflects the inability to prove what everybody knows(or at least very very very very strongly suspects) to be true.

  4. Harry Maryles says:

    I really think you have taken the concept of being Dan L’Kaf Zechus to an extreme.

    Your analysis of the verdict and trial …and the media reportage… does not prove bias on the part of the court or the media. All it does is show how one can in some way assume bias and show possible innocence on the part of the convicted father.

    I do not believe that there is anti Charedi bias at work here in this very high profile case. I believe instead that the judge is most likely an ‘honest broker’ who found this man guilty of a crime based on the evidence presented… and sentenced him to an appropriate punishment believing that justice was served – taking under consideration all the facts.

    Her sentencing comments may not have been expressed in the best possible way but, in my view the most likely scenario is the one that came out in court… and not the ‘anti Charedi bias of the judge and complete innocence of the father’ version of events you seem to believe is the case.

  5. george lithco says:

    In Dutchess County, New York seven children were shaken by a variety of caregivers. Three died. One was my son. The charges and sentences for the three caregivers who inflicted fatal injury: manslaughter second/10 years (served 6 years); criminally negligent homicide/3 years (2 years served); criminally negligent homicide/6 months home confinement, 5 years probation (6 months served). All of the perpetrators were women, and two of the perpetrators who inflicted fatal injury were grandmothers.

    I have seen the sentences in cases vary from probation to 40 years.

    The measure of justice varies immensely, and depends in large part upon the myths that the fact-finders and judges impose upon these tragedies to explain it to themselves.

    There are those who cannot explain how an apparently loving parent can inflict such injuries, and believe that grief over the loss of a beloved child is more than sufficient punishment by itself. There are those who believe that the victim is entitled to punishment, regardless of how benign the caregiver’s motive.

    What is truly unfortunate is that parents do have the opportunity to learn about preventing inflicted injuries. Since 1998, an education progam for new parents in the Buffalo, New York area has educated new parents about the vulnerability of young children to inflicted head injuries. Since then, the incidence of inflicted injuries has dropped by 50%.

    It is much better to light this candle than to curse the darkness and argue whether justice has been served every time one of these tragedies occurs.

    In addition to debating the merits of this case, I’d encourage you to spend an equivalent amount of time contacting local hospitals, child care organizations and parenting groups to find out whether new parents are being educated about the danger, and what they can do to help protect their child from that danger.

    If you don’t have enough time to do both, I know which I would choose.

    George

    Two footnotes:

    In October, the Jerusalem Post reported that the head of the National Council for the Child warned that the number of crib deaths (SIDS) appears to be increasing in Israel. Parents (especially those like the defendant in this case) also need to know that there is an effective way to reduce the risk of SIDS.

    There are two aspects of the medical “controversy” alluded to above.

    One is whether a thorough forensic investigation was conducted in each case and alternate plausible explanations for a child’s death have been considered and ruled out. That is necessary to ensure justice.

    One the other hand, there is a coterie of defense “experts” who basically seem to earn a living by testifying at trial that there is no such thing as shaken baby syndrome. Unlike the bulk of experts who participate in these cases, those “experts” seem never to have encountered a set of facts that is inconsistent with their explanation.

    No greater credence should be given to denial theory in these circumstances than other contexts.

  6. Menachem Lipkin says:

    There may be some media bias against chareidim (and many other groups) but if R. Menken’s analysis above is accurate all it shows is bad journalism not bias.

    If you want to say that there’s bias in that the media selected this case at all, all I can say B”H. B”H that child abuse in the frum community is still considered by the media to rare enough to be news. Sometimes we get bias confused with newsworthiness. Newspapers are in the business of, as they say in Newsies “selling papes”. The more unusual or sensational the headline the better.

    The original post and accompanying video showed some clear media bias in favor of Obama. However, it does not further the case of exposing media bias to “cry wolf” in cases where it doesn’t exist.

  7. Charlie Hall says:

    I just looked up the manslaughter statutes in New York State. The sentence for the less severe manslaughter crime (in which there is not an intent to cause serious injury, just recklessness) is 3 1/2 to 15 years.

  8. Moshe says:

    The court’s decision of the punishment is here:
    http://www.bhol.co.il/news_read.asp?id=7441&cat_id=1

    Here is the decision of guilt:

    http://info1.court.gov.il/Prod03/ManamHTML5.nsf/1EB4DDC26EF270B44225747A00559F27/FILE/146B72E2E0F05AAF422574560044C5F6.html?OpenElement

    I have not yet gone through it – it will take me a few days, and I will then try to write up a cohesive post on the subject which I hope to post here.

  9. Natan Slifkin says:

    Rabbi Menken, thank you for clarifying things – more precisely, for clarifying that matters are not as clear as the JPost article that I saw had indicated!