Legal teams from University of Michigan and Northwestern University have come together to try and get justice for a Battle Creek mother convicted of killing her 11-week-old daughter in 2001.
Now 34-years-old, Tonia Miller has spent her entire adult life in prison convicted by a Calhoun County jury of second-degree murder.
As things currently stand, she will be there until at least April 9, 2023. But the legal teams at two Big Ten universities believe that Miller did not shake her newborn child to death.
David Moran is a founder of the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, which has worked to exonerate people wrongly convicted of crimes, a number they estimate to be around 1,500.
“Well, we looked into this case because it appeared to us to be a pure outdated ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ case,” Moran said Wednesday from his office at Michigan Law School.
Now, the clinic is filing an appeal in Calhoun County Circuit Court seeking relief from judgement for Miller who was convicted by a jury following expert testimony presented by both the defense and prosecution.
“Our group of experts agreed that this wasn’t a shaken baby syndrome death, in fact the most likely cause was pneumonia,” Moran said.
Moran says since 2003 when Miller was convicted, the science has evolved and called into sharp doubt the theories behind shaken baby syndrome.
“If you saw subdural hemorrhage — which is bleeding on the outer layer of the brain, retina hemorrhage — so bleeding in the back of the eyes and brain swelling; well, that baby was violently shaken,” Moran said. “So, whoever last had the baby, there’s your culprit.”
“Now we know a lot better,” he said.
He said the prosecution followed a pattern that is typical in these types of cases.
“They jumped to the conclusion because they saw these couple of symptoms that the baby had been violently shaken and they stopped looking,” Moran said.
Alicia Duff had trouble breathing multiple times and on Oct. 19, 2001, Miller admitted to police to shaking the infant to get her to breathe.
“There are many other conditions such as hypoxia, which is a lack of oxygen to the brain that can be caused by pneumonia, that will cause retinal hemorrhaging, subdural hematoma and brain swelling,” Moran said.
Calhoun County Prosecutor David Gilbert did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him, but has stated publicly that he will oppose the appeal.
“I hope that they will rethink this and at least agree — they don’t necessarily have to agree that she’s innocent, but I hope that they would agree she deserves a new trial,” Moran said. “If they want to find experts who still believe in the old shaken baby syndrome dogma, let’s have a new trail and let’s have a jury hear the new evidence and see if they still really think this baby was abused.”
The Michigan Supreme Court in 2016 ruled in another Battle Creek case, Michigan v. Ackley, requiring courts to have expert testimony to refute claims of shaken baby syndrome before a jury.
Moran said studies that use tests similar to those done with automobile safety crashes have shown the folly of the syndrome.
“What these studies have shown is that a human cannot shake a baby hard enough to cause these symptoms without first killing the baby by breaking its neck,” Moran said.
Moran’s Innocence Clinic is asking for the 2003 case against then 18-year-old Tonia Miller be thrown out. It’s a motion the prosecutor opposes.
Moran estimates there are dozens, if not scores of these cases in Michigan.
Grand Rapids Attorney Andrew Rodenhouse argued Michigan v. Ackley, one of the landmark cases that forced the State Supreme Court to reform the way these cases are tried.
“It’s been close to eight or nine years since we’ve really seen a true shaken baby case here in Kent County,” Rodenhouse said.
But he says in Southern Michigan including Kalamazoo, Calhoun and Jackson counties, these cases are still brought forward.
“I call it the ‘I-94 Shaken Baby Corridor,’” Rodenhouse said. “The only thing I can attribute that to is there the same experts and they travel that corridor.”
He said prosecutors are still charging the cases because they believe in the science behind it.
“The prosecutors believe these experts also, because why wouldn’t you, these are the experts you have,” Rodenhouse said. “When it comes to the death of a child, juries’, the judges’, the lawyers’ brains just shut off.”
Some counties, such as Oakland County, have certified boards that look at child abuse cases to see if there is a crime.
Rodenhouse said there are certainly cases of genuine murder by child abuse but there is always other evidence as well.
“What we see is other evidence of abuse, we have other eyewitness reports of abuse, the classic is the cigarette burns,” he said.
The impact of convictions is real, he said.
“What’s as tragic as a child who is murdered is a parent whose been falsely accused of murder because they don’t get to mourn the death of their child, it rips families apart,” Rodenhouse said.
Kent County Prosecutor Christopher Becker said that he still believes in the science behind shaken baby cases, but says Kent County just has not had a case for a while.
Becker says that may be attributable to people being educated about the dangers of shaken baby syndrome.