Aaron Oliphant’s family used to call him “Mr. Mom.” At only 24-years-old, he was a dedicated father to three boys and an adoptive father to two others.
The State of Montana charged Aaron with aggravated assault on June 28, 2016, alleging that he seriously injured his son, Raidyn, on June 8. The State’s case relied on a diagnosis of the highly controversial “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” which is now most commonly referred to as Abusive Head Trauma. A jury convicted Aaron on September 27, 2017, and on January 29, 2018, he was sentenced to the maximum term of 20 years in Montana State Prison with five years suspended. Aaron had no prior criminal history.
Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma
SBS/AHT is a medico-legal diagnosis in babies and toddlers defined by a triad of symptoms: brain swelling, subdural hemorrhages, and retinal hemorrhages. These symptoms were once thought to be caused by parents violently shaking their babies, but research shows this was and still is an unproven hypothesis.
SBS/AHT was not reviewed by an independent scientific agency until 2016. The review found evidence for SBS/AHT to be “insufficient.” The report states that it would be “incompatible with both doctors’ professional duties and the regulations concerning legal certification” to definitely conclude that a child was shaken when the triad of symptoms is present. In short, there is no way to determine whether the triad of symptoms is caused by shaking or something different such as an accidental fall or an organic medical problem.
Medical problems since birth
Raidyn was born to Aaron and his former wife, Brittany Hiatt, on January 30, 2016. After seven hours of labor, he was delivered by cesarean section. Because Raidyn was born prematurely at 35 weeks, he was sent to the NICU in Great Falls for a week after his birth. Raidyn had medical issues from the moment he was born; he was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux and had difficulty breathing, keeping food down, and sleeping.
On June 8, 2016, Brittany was alone with Raidyn and their other children all day, and Aaron took over parenting duties from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. while Brittany worked. Around 6 p.m., Raidyn did not appear to be feeling well. He had recently been experiencing reflux, so Aaron gave him some gas medication. Raidyn seemed to calm down around 8:30 p.m. However, an hour later, he was fussy again. For the next hour, his symptoms fluctuated, with the most concerning symptom being falling in and out of consciousness. When Brittany got off work at 10:30 p.m., she called Aaron who told her that the baby was acting weird and to come home immediately.
When Brittany arrived, Raidyn was unresponsive. She called her mom, Apryl Hiatt, who is a registered nurse. Apryl observed Raidyn over video chat and concluded that he was likely just tired. At 2 a.m., Raidyn woke up crying. After taking two bottles, he fell back asleep until 4 or 5 a.m. At 9 a.m., he ate again and then began projectile vomiting. Brittany then took Raidyn to the emergency room at St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena while Aaron waited for another caretaker to arrive to watch their other children.
At the emergency room, a CT scan was performed on Raidyn, and the radiologist found nothing. The ER doctor was not satisfied with this read and sent the scan to a doctor in Seattle for an unofficial overread. That doctor found evidence of non-accidental trauma consistent with SBS/AHT.
Upon receiving this information, the ER doctor in Helena contacted social services and law enforcement. It was then determined that an MRI should be performed immediately, and since St. Peter’s Hospital did not have that capability, Raidyn was life-flighted to the Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Forensic medical malpractice
The MRI was eventually performed, but not until four days after Raidyn’s admittance to the hospital in Utah. The consensus was that Raidyn suffered from SBS/AHT, but due to the lapse in time, these results are not reliable. A medical expert consulted by MTIP characterized the inexplicable delay to perform the MRI as forensic medical malpractice.
“Raidyn’s medical team recognized that an MRI needed to be done asap; hence, the life-flighting,” said MTIP Legal Director Caiti Carpenter. “Three different doctors said, ‘We need to have this immediately.’ He gets there on the 10th, and the scan is not done until the 14th. There is absolutely no reason for this, and by failing to do it right then, we lost evidence that could have shown that Aaron didn’t harm him.”
During the trial, the State painted Aaron as an abusive father, “intentionally inflicting, with incredible force,” injuries that caused SBS/AHT. Using evidence from the MRI, the State argued the injuries could have only been inflicted during the time Raidyn was in Aaron’s care on June 8 from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
“According to the medical expert we have now consulted with, it doesn’t pan out that way at all,” Carpenter said. “These injuries could not be dated within any reasonable degree of medical certainty. The scans that they did do were so far away from the time of the supposed injury taking place that if they are of use, they are of minimal use.”
By delaying the MRI, Raidyn’s medical team in Salt Lake City not only impacted the usefulness of the evidence but ran the risk of misdiagnosing Raidyn and interfering with his ability to seek care that could have helped him later in life.
One of the doctors who examined Raidyn advised performing evaluations to rule out possibilities other than SBS/AHT, but they were never completed. Therefore, the SBS/AHT diagnosis stood without considering other possible causes. It is MTIP’s belief that had other tests been performed, an alternative diagnosis may have prevailed.
Possible alternative diagnoses
Raidyn had gastroesophageal reflux; this is known to be misdiagnosed in people who actually have epilepsy—a disease that can cause the same symptoms attributed to SBS/AHT. Similarly, a doctor noted that Raidyn may have thrombosed cortical veins—again, this exhibits similar symptoms to SBS/AHT. These are just two examples of medical conclusions Raidyn’s doctors could have made if they investigated further than SBS/AHT, but the possibilities are endless because the symptoms can be caused by a myriad of reasons.
“When I think about Shaken Baby Syndrome, it’s the perfect storm of things because you have all of these symptoms, but nobody saw the kid get hurt,” Carpenter said. “It’s this boogeyman. These symptoms can happen for a whole lot of reasons, but if they all come together, it’s all of a sudden Shaken Baby Syndrome.”
Diagnosing SBS/AHT based on the triad of symptoms is similar to suggesting that because someone has a headache and a runny nose that they must have the flu; realistically, they could have the common cold or simple allergies. They have overlapping symptoms. If someone came into the doctor with a headache and a runny nose, it would be odd to immediately prescribe that person with Tamiflu before further investigating whether those symptoms could be attributed to something else. That is exactly what is happening here and in many SBS/AHT cases: babies or toddlers exhibit the triad of symptoms, and SBS/AHT is diagnosed without considering alternative causes.
The theory of SBS/AHT is particularly questionable in Raidyn’s case because the internal injuries were severe and had no accompanying external injuries.
“In this case, you don’t have external injuries, but you have fractures to the skull,” Carpenter said. “How? How do you break someone’s skull and not have even a bruise? The state maintains that this could have only happened between 6 and 10:30 when Raidyn was in Aaron’s care. How could you get five fractures and have no external injuries at the hospital the next morning? It’s utterly bizarre, and it just goes back to the complete and utter ineffectiveness of counsel that none of this was communicated to the jury.”
Ineffective assistance of counsel
The State’s case relied entirely on SBS/AHT. An effective defense attorney should have demonstrated its lack of scientific validity to the jury, but Aaron’s counsel did not consult any medical professionals.
“Medical evidence is the key to this case,” Carpenter said. “It’s not like a robbery where you can get eyewitnesses to say, ‘I saw him come into the bank with a gun,’ and there’s your case. There had to be experts in this case. And for counsel to not even consult an expert is unfathomable—especially when the state had all its ducks in a row. They had five experts.”
Carpenter is referencing the five doctors that were part of Raidyn’s medical team. All of them presented expert testimony for the prosecution, but Aaron’s attorney was unable to refute their evidence because he did not have his own medical expert.
“We’re attorneys; we are not medical experts,” Carpenter said. “We need someone who is learned in this particular field to be able to guide us. There was none of that in this case for Aaron. He didn’t have a leg to stand on.”
Aaron’s defense attorney was suffering from esophageal cancer at the time of the trial. In fact, it was his second to last trial before he passed away. Although he was a highly regarded attorney, his abilities to effectively represent someone were severely diminished by the time of Aaron’s trial. He was not eating, he had trouble speaking, and he was unable to hear much of the State’s case. In fact, MTIP counted 30 instances recorded in the transcripts where the attorney demonstrated that he could not hear or was confused about what was happening.
“It’s very sad,” Carpenter said. “This is not in any way a personal attack on that attorney. But ultimately, Aaron had a constitutional right to an effective counsel. But he didn’t get that because his attorney was unable to do so because of the complications of his medical conditions. It’s a really sad case, and, unfortunately, Aaron has to live with the ramifications of his counsel’s poor health.”
According to Aaron’s family, SBS/AHT is even harder to believe when you consider who he is.
“He’s a very level-headed person, contrary to the picture they painted of him,” Rena said. “Very slow to anger. Very slow to get upset. Almost to the point that he’s too kind, too giving. He’s been taken advantage of in that aspect.”
It was no surprise to Rena that Aaron was a caring and compassionate father because that’s the way he’s always been.
“Growing up, he got along with everybody,” Rena said. “If somebody needed something or needed help, he was there. Our house was the house to come to for his friends. There were a few times where Aaron asked if they could stay with us because they were going through some problems. He’s always been that kind of person.”
Rena’s belief in Aaron’s innocence is compelling because the alleged victim is her own grandson. She maintains that she would not stand up for Aaron if she believed he harmed Raidyn, but to her, that allegation is simply impossible.
“It breaks our heart that he’s going through it and that our grandkids are going through it,” Rena said. “This isn’t just about our son, but it’s our grandkids too. We know all the behind-the-scenes. And there’s no way anybody would have hurt Raidyn, especially Aaron.”
Where the case stands today
The Montana Innocence Project simultaneously filed a Motion for New Trial and a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief and a Request to Stay Proceedings Pending Full Discovery on June 3, 2020.