Ex-sitter fights to get conviction in infant death overturned

Ex-sitter fights to get conviction in infant death overturned

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

A woman is in prison for a crime she says she didn't commit and is guilty of murder because she's a victim of an outdated science.

11 years ago, Jennifer Del Prete, who had been a babysitter for many years, was watching several children, when one of the children in her care became unresponsive.

"I remember holding her and she doesn't wake up," Del Prete explains of the 3-month-old baby. "I picked her up like this and said her name, ‘Isabella, Isabella' because she was limp. She seemed limp."

She says the baby never fell and never suffered trauma; she just became unresponsive.

Prosecutors later called it Shaken Baby Syndrome and said Jennifer must have "violently shaken the baby" over and over, causing her death.

"No, I did not shake her. I'm not guilty of murder," Del Prete says. "I‘m guilty of being there with somebody who had a problem trying to help them and somehow getting I feel railroaded because I was the last person with her."

"She's wonderful with kids," says Gleeann Kehr. "I've known her for years and never seen her even remotely lose her cool."

Jennifer was the last person with the child and she became the immediate focus, yet many medical experts say that 'bleeding in the brain'--from shaking or anything else--can take several days and even weeks to show up.

"Did it happen between this hour and that hour? No you probably can't do that. But within days maybe, weeks, certainly," Forensic Neuropathologist Dr. Jan E. Leestma explains.

The science on Shaken Baby Syndrome has divided many experts. Even Dr. A. Norman Guthkelch, a neurosurgeon who published some of the original research decades ago, has since retracted his view, saying most cases labeled Shaken Baby Syndrome are not that at all.

Guthkelch is now 97 years old, living in a retirement home in Evanston.

"It wasn't my mind that needed to be changed. What needed to be sorted out was the fact that these fatal cases were being regarded as due to shaking, simply because no one else could think of any explanation."

So what if there was another explanation here? What if Jennifer didn't do it?

In the past, students have helped get prisoners off death row. Now, a group of students at Northwestern University have turned their attention to this case.

Professor Alec Klein runs the Medill Justice Project at Northwestern University. His students are examining every fact and witness in the case.

"So, we are trying to pursue these cases because we think there may be a number of people behind bars who shouldn't be there," Klein says.

"This is a case really where two families were shattered," says student Alex Hampl. Ms. Del Prete's family and the family of the infant….and we just want to get to the truth."

What's more, the students are pouring through just-released medical records that show the baby in Jennifer's case had a prior medical condition--a blood clot in the brain. It was never brought up in court and lawyers say it would have made all the difference.

Jennifer Del Prete got 20 years for first degree murder. The single mom has two children herself, now 23 and 16-years-old, and now grandchild she's never met.

From behind prison walls, Del Prete says this could have happened to anyone.

"Had you been there that day, you would be standing here," Del Prete says through tears. "And I didn't hurt her."

She now prays every day for a new trial.

"The science is not matching up with the facts," says attorney Steve Weinberg. "I think that Jennifer should get another trial. And have these experts witnesses present it before a jury. I think there'll be a different outcome."

"We'll I'm very angry. I'm hurt. This is a long shot, but at least it's a shot," Del Prete says of the possibility of a new trial.

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