Man Wins New Trial in Haverhill ‘Shaken Baby’ Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is located at the John Adams Courthouse.

Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.

Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.

A “substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice” led to new trial being granted to a former Haverhill man convicted nine years ago of shaking a baby and causing “traumatic brain injury.”

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Thursday vacated the July, 2007, trial and conviction of Derick Epps, on a charge of assault and battery on a child causing substantial bodily injury. The child was the then-two-year old daughter of his live-in girlfriend. It also remanded the case to the superior court for a new trial. In a 47-page ruling, the court reversed denials, since 2013, of a post-conviction motion for a new trial. An appeal was based on claims “his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to retain a medical expert to question whether injuries were caused by shaken baby syndrome” and whether “new scientific advances on shaken baby syndrome and short falls warranted a new trial.”

“We need only determine, in the circumstances of this case, whether there is a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice where the jury heard no scientific or medical expert challenging the majority views on shaken baby syndrome and short falls, and where new research has emerged since the time of trial that would lend credibility to the opinion of such an expert. Because we conclude that there is a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice here, we cannot allow this conviction to stand,” wrote Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants.

Epps, who was babysitting the girl and four-year old sister Oct. 9, 2004, had denied injuring the young girl while he and a friend were playing a video game. He told investigators in 2004 and testified in 2007 she fell three times in one day, from “two or three wooden stairs,” while attempting to get down from a stool by herself’ and onto a floor upstairs.

“The prosecution contended that the defendant violently shook the two-year-old child in his care based on medical testimony that the child was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, and scans of her brain that showed retinal hemorrhages, subdural hematoma and brain swelling, the three symptoms known as ‘the triad’ associated with shaken baby syndrome,” Gants added. “We conclude that, in the unusual circumstances of this case, the absence of expert testimony that the child's injuries might have been caused by her accidental falls deprived the defendant of an available, substantial ground of defense, and thereby created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice. We therefore reverse the judge's denial of the defendant's motion for a new trial, vacate the conviction, and remand the case to the Superior Court for a new trial.”

In the 2007 trial, the girl’s mother, according to the ruling’s background material, testified she “was a clumsy child and fell down often, that she bruised easily, and that she was being treated for a blood disorder.” It notes a disorder “was not identified at trial.”

Epps also described the girl as “clumsy” and “accident prone” in his interview to the police, and described specific instances when she had fallen, including “three or four days prior when she ran into a door and sustained a bump on her head and a slight black eye,” a statement reads.