Cost of Wrongful Incarceration
$100,734 (in 2015 dollars)
Most parents would do anything to save their child’s life. MTIP freed client Jasmine Eskew was doing exactly that when the State of Montana laid the groundwork for her wrongful conviction.
The 911 Call
On September 18, 2012, Eskew, at the time just 21-years-old, called 911 in Great Falls, Montana, to report that her infant daughter, Brooklynn, was not breathing. Eskew’s boyfriend, Greg Robey, was seen leaving the residence as paramedics arrived.
Not showing any visible injuries, the doctors suspected Brooklynn was suffering from Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), which is now more commonly known as Abusive Head Trauma (ABT). Eskew was immediately taken to the police station for questioning.
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 definitively conclude that a child was shaken when the triad of symptoms are 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. Furthermore, actually testing the SBS/ABT hypothesis would require shaking babies, which would likely never be allowed by an ethical review board.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, discusses controversial medico-legal diagnosis Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma:
The Coerced Confession
Eskew’s interrogation lasted four hours. Officers said they needed an accurate description of what transpired so they could inform the doctors. Eskew repeatedly told detectives that she did not shake Brooklynn. However, the detectives continued to tell Eskew that the sooner she told the truth, the sooner Brooklynn would receive proper medical care—insinuating that Brooklyn may die if Eskew did not falsely confess to shaking her.
Officers told Eskew that she was the “only one” who could help Brooklynn and that by not giving them the responses they wanted, she was “hurting” Brooklynn. At this point, Eskew maintained the truth: that she noticed Brooklynn was in distress and called 911 after failing to console her by rocking her.
Eventually, the officers gave Eskew a doll to demonstrate how she rocked Brooklynn. Eskew rocked the doll. But the officers demanded she keep doing it differently and that she “make the doll’s head rock.” Eskew, after four hours, succumbed to the coercive tactics. She shook the babydoll and told them she shook Brooklynn in the same manner.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, on official misconduct in Jasmine Eskew’s coerced confession:
Eskew was ultimately arrested following the coerced confession and never saw her daughter alive again. Two days after the 911 call, Brooklynn died at a hospital in Spokane, Washington. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head. The CT scan revealed a skull fracture in the shape of a circular hole. Eskew was charged with deliberate homicide and felony assault on a minor.
Eskew’s trial counsel attempted to suppress the confession, arguing it was coerced. Cascade County District Judge Dirk Sandefur found that the officers deliberately lied to Eskew to acquire her confession. Despite this, the motion was denied, and the confession was presented at trial. According to Judge Sandefur, the officers only lied when they told Eskew that the interview was necessary to get information to treat Brooklynn and that Eskew would be reunited with her daughter as soon as the interrogation was over.
Eskew went to trial in March 2014. The prosecution relied on the coerced confession to show that Brooklynn died of a fractured skull that resulted in a subdural hematoma.
The defense argued that Robey was responsible for Brooklynn’s death. Robey was taking care of Brooklynn in the hours before Eskew noticed she was not breathing, and the injury on her head matched Robey’s ring. The defense also presented evidence that Robey had an abusive past. Eskew, who had given birth to twins prior to the trial, said the pregnancy was a result of Robey raping her on the day Brooklynn was injured. The defense tried to call an expert witness on false confessions, but Judge Sandefur did not allow the testimony.
On April 1, 2014, the jury found Eskew not guilty of deliberate homicide but guilty of felony assault on a minor. She was sentenced to five years in prison and served three before her conviction was overturned and the charges were dropped.
New Trial is Granted Without the Confession
The Montana Appellate Defender appealed Eskew’s conviction on the grounds that the trial was unfair because she was not able to present an expert witness on false confessions and that the confession should have never been submitted. The Innocence Project and the Montana Innocence Project submitted amicus briefs in support of Eskew. In February 2017, the Montana Supreme Court reversed Eskew’s conviction and granted her a new trial without the confession.
“Based upon our review of the record, we are firmly convinced a mistake has been made,” the court held. “Confessions or admissions like the ones in this case, induced by deliberate psychological coercion, lies, and material misrepresentations to the suspect are not voluntary and should be excluded from evidence.”
The State Drops the Charge
Eskew was released on March 14, 2017, and the prosecution dismissed the charge two weeks later.