Most parents would do anything to save their child’s life. 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, Jasmine called 911 in Great Falls, Montana, to report that her infant daughter, Brooklynn, was not breathing. Jasmine’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 (AHT). Jasmine 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 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.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, discusses the controversial medico-legal diagnosis Shaken Baby Syndrome/Abusive Head Trauma:
The coerced confession
Jasmine’s interrogation lasted four hours. Officers said they needed an accurate description of what transpired so they could inform the doctors. Jasmine repeatedly told detectives that she did not shake Brooklynn. However, the detectives continued to tell her that the sooner she told the truth, the sooner Brooklynn would receive proper medical care—insinuating that Brooklynn may die if Jasmine did not falsely confess to shaking her.
Officers told Jasmine 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, Jasmine 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 Jasmine a doll to demonstrate how she rocked Brooklynn. Jasmine rocked the doll. But the officers demanded she keep doing it differently and that she “make the doll’s head rock.” Jasmine, after four hours, succumbed to the coercive tactics. She shook the baby doll and told them she shook Brooklynn in the same manner.
MTIP Legal Director, Caiti Carpenter, on official misconduct in Jasmine Eskew’s coerced confession:
Jasmine 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. Jasmine was charged with Deliberate Homicide and Felony Assault on a Minor.
Jasmine’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 Jasmine 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 Jasmine that the interview was necessary to get information to treat Brooklynn and that Jasmine would be reunited with her daughter as soon as the interrogation was over.
Jasmine 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 Greg was responsible for Brooklynn’s death. Greg was taking care of Brooklynn in the hours before Jasmine noticed she was not breathing, and the injury on her head matched Greg’s ring. The defense also presented evidence that Greg had an abusive past. Jasmine, who had given birth to twins before the trial, said the pregnancy resulted from Greg 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 Jasmine 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 granted without the false confession
The Montana Appellate Defender appealed Jasmine’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 Jasmine. In February 2017, the Montana Supreme Court reversed Jasmine’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
Jasmine was released on March 14, 2017, and the prosecution dismissed the charge two weeks later.