Suffolk DA may revisit infant deaths to seek
evidence of homicide
By Richard A. Knox, Globe Staff,
In April 1994, Suffolk County District Attorney Ralph C. Martin II got a
letter from his counterpart in Syracuse, N.Y., alerting him to ''the strong likelihood''
that a 1987 report by Massachusetts General Hospital researchers on sudden infant death
syndrome ''recounts (inadvertently) a number of homicides.''
The warning went unheeded until yesterday, when Martin read in his
morning newspaper that a former MGH researcher, Dr. Thomas Truman, had independently come
to the same conclusion. Truman says the hospital's records harbor evidence that a number
of parents may have deliberately smothered their children and blamed the deaths or
near-deaths on sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
This time, the Suffolk district attorney says he will look into it.
''We need to see the science,'' James Borghesani, Martin's spokesman,
said yesterday. ''We need to see the basis for these opinions. Only then will we and the
medical examiner's office, together with the appropriate law enforcement agencies, be in
the position to determine whether further investigation is warranted.''
In May of 1996, Borghesani told the Syracuse Post-Standard that the
Suffolk County district attorney was too busy ''to sit down and reflect on something that
at this point is a cerebral thing.'' The newspaper had contacted Borghesani after learning
about the 1994 letter from Onondaga County District Attorney Bill Fitzpatrick to Martin.
Borghesani yesterday verified the accuracy of that quotation, but said
Fitzpatrick's letter ''was too vague, there was virtually nothing to go on.''
There is increasing concern about the practice of attributing infant
deaths to SIDS when a family has experienced more than one such unexplained death. Critics
say the MGH case illustrates how difficult it is to raise officials' suspicion when
respected researchers back up the parents and insist that the real cause is an elusive
genetic defect, even though 25 years of research has failed to find a hereditary pattern
MGH, where Truman's allegations were presented internally nearly 18
months ago, issued a statement yesterday in which officials said they ''have reported
suspected cases of child abuse whenever there has been sufficient evidence.''
The hospital's statement said that issues of possible abuse in suspected
SIDS cases or near-death episodes ''are extremely complex and sensitive ... Because of its
complexity, this subject is constantly debated within our department and in academic
pediatric centers across the country.''
Dr. Daniel C. Shannon, director of Mass. General's SIDS program, was not
available for comment. Attempts to reach former MGH researcher Dr. Dorothy Kelly, who
coauthored the 1987 paper with Shannon on families with multiple cases of SIDS or
near-death, were unsuccessful.
One study by Kelly included two families that had four purported SIDS
victims each, and two with three deaths each attributed to SIDS. Truman, who is now
practicing in Tallahassee, Fla., concludes that about one-third of 156 cases of sudden
infant death or near-death episodes among the MGH caseload may have involved parental
Truman and Fitzpatrick were not the only ones who have called attention
to the possibility that some of the cases of multiple SIDS within families studied at the
MGH might actually be murder. In May 1988, the journal Pediatrics, which had published the
1987 SIDS research by the MGH doctors, printed a letter by Dr. Vincent DiMaio, chief
medical examiner in San Antonio, alleging that some of the MGH cases were probably
Fitzpatrick, who stumbled upon the MGH research while investigating a
child homicide case in his district, also sent the DiMaio letter to Martin in 1994.
Fitzpatrick said yesterday that he was glad to hear Martin's office was
responding to Truman's allegations. ''It's never too late,'' Fitzpatrick said, adding that
if he were in Boston, he would be ''prosecuting serial killers who are apparently using
the MGH as a place of refuge.''
Fitzpatrick and others who have investigated families with multiple
deaths wrongly attributed to SIDS believe such homicides - while undoubtedly a small
fraction of the reported 3,300 SIDS cases reported annually - are not as uncommon as most
''It's kind of an exotic thing but I don't think it's rare,''
Fitzpatrick said. ''I'm just one prosecutor in just one area of New York state, and I've
helped uncover 17 dead babies who were murdered. Nationally, there's got to be hundreds of
A paper to be published in the November issue of the journal Pediatrics
will report that 39 women were caught by concealed video cameras trying to smother their
babies in a London hospital over a period of several years.
According to a book published this week, ''The Death of Innocents,''
Truman's superiors at MGH reacted with hostility when he raised suspicions, and even
contradicted him after he warned caregivers in one child's hometown.
As Truman's experience and Martin's initial response illustrate, those
who raise suspicions about parental abuse in purported SIDS cases encounter formidable
Although the past few years have seen the conviction of mothers who have
killed as many as nine children under the cloak of SIDS, district attorneys and police
investigators often shy away from such cases because they are difficult to prove.
Some academic experts have a strong stake in their familial hypothesis
of SIDS - in reputation, grant money, referrals, and money to be made by putting children
on expensive electronic monitors if a sibling has died of SIDS. ''When an unsupported
hypothesis attracts support from parents and government, and becomes `a religion,' it's
impossible to stop,'' Dr. Jerold Lucey, editor of Pediatrics, writes in a commentary to be
published next month.
Community pediatricians don't often entertain the possibility of foul
''It's often difficult to get some of my colleagues to understand that
abuse needs to be considered,'' said pediatrician Robert Reece, medical director of the
Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. ''There is a sense of
protecting the families you're dealing with. But this needs to be viewed with a little
''If there's more than one case in a family, that would be my threshold
of suspicion,'' Reece added. ''SIDS should not occur more than one time in a family. It's
not a familial disease.''
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 09/10/97.
© Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company.