Suspected of Shaken Baby Syndrome
Robert “Dave” Wilkes’ infant son Gabriel became sick at daycare on October 4, 2008. Later that night, Gabriel stopped breathing. Gabriel was taken to Missoula’s Community Hospital where it was revealed that his brain was bleeding and swollen. Despite having no outward signs of injury, Wilkes was instantly under suspicion for abusing his baby.
Gabriel died a few weeks later, and Wilkes was charged with deliberate homicide. The prosecution’s theory of the case relied on Shaken Baby Syndrome. Wilkes’ court-appointed defense attorney did not call any witnesses to testify on Dave’s behalf and did not challenge the prosecution’s medical evidence. The jury found Wilkes guilty, and the judge sentenced him to 40 years.
MTIP Takes the Case
In 2012, the Montana Innocence Project began its investigation into the case. They found three compelling reasons to support his innocence: (1) The prosecution’s medical evidence was long outdated and discredited; (2) compelling new medical evidence demonstrated that Gabriel’s death was not caused by head trauma but by a pre-existing medical condition; and (3) Wilkes’ lawyer in the original trial failed to produce readily available medical scientific evidence to support his client’s innocence and rebut the prosecution’s medical evidence.
A New Trial is Granted
MTIP filed a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief on these grounds in 2014. It was denied, but MTIP appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court who reversed the decision and sent it back to the lower court to reconsider. Judge James Haynes was assigned to take over Wilkes’ case following the remand. He found that the medical evidence was not new since it was available at the time of the original trial but that the defense attorney who represented Wilkes was ineffective for failing to consult with and call expert witnesses who could have challenged the controversial Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis. On June 29, 2018, Judge Haynes overturned Wilkes’ conviction and ordered a new trial.
Wilkes is Freed
Wilkes was transported to Missoula for an initial appearance, now in front of Judge Leslie Halligan. He was released on his own recognizance and trial was set for January 2020. Before trial, Wilkes pleaded no contest to criminal endangerment, and on January 29, 2020, Halligan approved the state’s recommendation that Wilkes remain free.