It’s a convenient diagnosis for prosecutors, in that it provides a cause of death (violent shaking), a culprit (whoever was last with the child before death) and even intent (prosecutors often argue that the violent, extended shaking establishes mens rea.) According to a 2015 survey by The Washington Post and the Medill Justice Project, there were about 1,800 SBS prosecutions between 2001 and 2015, with 1,600 resulting in convictions.
But in the late 1990s, Plunkett — a forensic pathologist in Minnesota — began to have doubts about the diagnosis. He started investigating cases in which children had died in a manner similar to the way accused caregivers had described the deaths of the children they were watching — by short-distance falls. What he found alarmed him. In 2001, Plunkett published a study detailing how he had found symptoms similar to those in the SBS diagnosis in children who had fallen off playground equipment. It was a landmark study. If a short-distance fall could produce symptoms similar to those in SBS cases, the SBS diagnosis that said symptoms could only come from shaking was wrong. By that point, hundreds of people had been convicted based on SBS testimony from medical experts. Some of them were undoubtedly guilty. But if Plunkett was right, some of them almost certainly weren’t.