When a Child Dies

“Post Mortem” — NPR/ProPublica/Frontline

Post Mortem” isn't your typical series about dead babies. In its five parts, you'll find no gushing about the little fingers, chubby legs or cherubic smiles of the young victims. That's because the focus of the series isn't the children themselves, but rather how the wrong people were accused and convicted of killing them.

Investigative journalism entails challenging orthodoxies. It involves questioning some of our most deeply held values and beliefs — the integrity of our presidents, the safety of our kids' toys and the soundness of common medical diagnoses, for example. As jobs go, it can be lonely and daunting.

NPR's Joe Shapiro — along with journalists from ProPublica and Frontline — hit a triple whammy with “Post Mortem” by debunking widely held assumptions about shaken baby syndrome, exposing how coroners, police and prosecutors can target innocent people and showing how juries fall for it all too often.

One of Shapiro's subjects, Ernie Lopez, articulates the rush to blame simply and eloquently. “A baby died. Somebody's gonna go to jail.”

The series spun from an earlier collaborative series by the three media organizations about the state of medical examiners and coroners in the U.S. “Post Mortem: The Child Cases” — a runner up for the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism — looked specifically at problems with the way medical examiners approached child deaths.

As part of the series, Shapiro broke a story about the pediatric neurosurgeon who did the original research about shaken baby syndrome in 1971. Norman Guthkelch, who was 95 at the time of the interview, expressed alarm about how the diagnosis too often is being applied without coroners and medical examiners considering other possible causes for a child's injury or death. Just as some early atomic scientists decried their research being used as weapons of mass destruction, Guthkelch was hell-bent that his research not be misused.

Shapiro had come to NPR in 2001 after 19 years as a print reporter at U.S. News and World Report. If he had reservations about the limitations of radio, they faded with interviews such as Guthkelch's. During their conversation, when asked about the weak evidence of shaken baby syndrome in a case in Arizona, Guthkelch responded without reservation: “I wouldn't hang a cat on the evidence of shaking, as presented.” Shapiro was struck by the dimension in Guthkelch's voice, which he's sure he “couldn't have come close to capturing in print.”

“He's this brilliant man, here he is at 95 and you could hear the concern, the regret in his voice, and this man facing this thing that is his legacy with this regret about how it was used,” Shapiro says.

Reporting on innocence cases requires taking risks — standing behind people whom police, prosecutors, juries and whole communities have demonized. The challenges are even higher with people tagged as having killed babies.

In all the stories his team reported in the U.S. and Canada, the one that most stands out for Shapiro involved Ernie Lopez, who was sentenced to 60 years on a charge of sexually assaulting 6-month-old Isis Vas, and also facing capital murder charges for her death. Though documentation, interviews with witnesses and experts, and hours with Lopez convinced Shapiro of his innocence, it was a challenge to make listeners care about a man accused of the some of worst crimes imaginable.

“So I started with that. I started off acknowledging that this is horrible. We're starting from this place of being horrified,” he says. “In the second graph I say there's a lack of agreement among medical experts about what causes death and that sometimes innocent people get wrongly convicted. And I shed a little bit of light and say it could be something else. And then I have to walk people through what happened in a way they're open to listening to what happened. I unspooled the story in a way that you can be open-minded and not sure about Ernie. As I tell the story, I start to give a feeling about what happened. I'm cognizant of the fact that people are going to be pretty suspicious of this guy. They should be.”

“I'm cognizant of the fact that people are going to be pretty suspicious of this guy. They should be.”

Using the particularly powerful tools of his trade, Shapiro played the 911 call in which listeners could hear Lopez's panic and confusion over Vas's unconsciousness as Lopez and his wife were providing child care for her. Slowly, Shapiro detailed the growing body of evidence that Isis was killed by disease, not violence. Upon closer examination than the photos had at trial, he explained how they could have been misinterpreted to show sexual abuse. Rather, tests suggested a coagulation disorder that can cause bleeding from every orifice. Shapiro needed time to unfold these details, subtly prodding listeners' suspicions and skepticism about Lopez's innocence claim to fade. It helped that his editors at NPR gave him 20 minutes to run the story on “All Things Considered” — far more than the typical 12-minute investigative piece.

Shapiro is proud of the fact that he and his “Post Mortem” team were the first people other than Lopez's family and lawyers to believe him. “What mattered to Ernie is that we told his story,” he says. Less than a year after Lopez's story was told, a three-judge panel vacated his conviction and Lopez walked free after nearly nine years behind bars. The local prosecutor says he will retry him.

Lopez's and several other cases in “Post Mortem” raised uncomfortable questions about approaches that for decades have become all too entrenched in the medical and social services establishment. They showed how, in the name of child protection, flawed science can ruin people's lives.

“We have a response — all of us, as a society and a legal system — when a child dies. It makes us angry. It moves us. We want to punish the person who's responsible‚Ķespecially if he or she was caring for the child at the time. I think this is the danger, this is why innocent people go to prison — because we have this narrative in our head about what causes a child to die,” Shapiro says.

With the project, “We were aware that we were doing something that would change the way people who heard these stories perceived, assumed things — that you would not automatically make assumptions about someone accused of shaken baby syndrome,” he adds. “I felt that I was doing something that I hoped would change the way listeners thought of the subject.”