Woman convicted of shaking baby has new hope
Thirteen years after she was imprisoned for the murder of a 2-year-old Bartlett boy, Pamela Jacobazzi is still quick to declare she's innocent.
"I would never hurt a child; I love children," she told the Daily Herald emphatically in a recent interview at downstate Lincoln Correctional Center.
Jacobazzi, 57, is eligible for parole in just three years -- but she hopes to clear her name before then.
That's because the former Bartlett day care provider convicted of fatally shaking Matthew Czapski is getting a new evidentiary hearing, which could result in a new trial.
She also has picked up backing from the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, which is calling on Gov. Pat Quinn to grant her clemency.
For Jacobazzi, the situation could become something of a gamble: Should she go back to trial and be convicted again, she could be resentenced and receive an even longer prison stay.
"I'm optimistic. I believe they'll be getting me out of here," she said. "I am innocent."
A jury convicted Jacobazzi in 1999 of shaking Matthew, then 10 months old, so violently that he went into a vegetative state and died more than a year later.
The verdict came after a flurry of medical experts testified for the prosecution that the child had what they refer to as a "triad" of internal head injuries that could be attributed only to being shaken.
An appellate court granted Jacobazzi a review after her attorney argued the jury never heard about pre-existing conditions that could have caused the boy's death. Those conditions, including persistent fevers and characteristics of sickle cell anemia, will be the focus of her hearing in November.
"The whole prior medical history is key because the entire case is based on the notion the baby was healthy -- and he wasn't," defense attorney Anthony Sassan said.
The appeal highlights a fierce debate roiling in the medical and legal communities about what's commonly known as shaken baby syndrome.
Science has long held that the triad -- retinal bleeding, brain tissue swelling and subdural hematomas -- are signs of violent shaking when present in a child without external injuries.
But conflicting views are emerging, with some doctors saying those symptoms also result from naturally occurring illnesses, such as sickle cell anemia.
DuPage County prosecutors maintain Jacobazzi shook Matthew to death and said they stand behind her conviction.
"The jury found, and it was proven, that the baby died of shaken baby syndrome," State's Attorney Robert Berlin said.
He said prosecutors will contradict the defense's "new theory" with evidence and expert witnesses.
Matthew's family declined to comment.
Jacobazzi said Matthew appeared far from healthy when his mother first dropped him off on Aug. 1, 1994.
He had delayed motor skills and was frequently ill, she recalled, spending just five days in her care before his injuries surfaced, and he was hospitalized on Aug. 11, 1994.
"He couldn't crawl. He couldn't sit up. He definitely could not stand up and hold onto anything," Jacobazzi said. "It was not what I thought a 10-month-old would be."
Matthew's injuries later left him blinded and unconscious until his death 16 months later, in December 1995.
Jacobazzi never admitted shaking him, but police said she asked before conducting a lengthy interrogation what would happen to her if she did confess.
Today, Jacobazzi said she doesn't recall making that statement.
She acknowledged that Matthew fell and bumped his head once, and also suggested he could have been injured during playtime activities.
Medical witnesses for the prosecution contended at trial that Matthew's injuries were so severe his symptoms would have shown almost immediately if that had been the case.
"There was testimony that the only other thing that could have caused this was an automobile wreck or a fall from several stories," said investigator Bill Clutter, who founded the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois in Springfield and is advocating for Jacobazzi's release at change.org.
"We now know that there are accidental causes and naturally occurring diseases that can result in these injuries," he said. "Science has come full circle."
Not everyone agrees with that assessment, though.
Dr. Robert Block, president of the Academy of American Pediatrics, said science has evolved since shaken baby syndrome burst into headlines in the 1990s -- but not to the extent some would like to believe.
He said pediatricians assessing potential abuse have long known other factors could result in the triad of injuries associated with shaking, but some researchers challenging the validity of the diagnosis (also known as abusive head trauma) neglect that detail.
"They ignore that our clinical diagnosis is not made in isolation. It's made after a great deal of conferencing with law enforcement and child welfare workers, family interviews, and after putting together timelines and considering all other diseases," said Block, a board-certified child abuse pediatrician who serves on an advisory committee for the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome.
"My opinion is that the other side is not representing a scientific argument," he added. "Whatever their motivations are, they're propagating this notion that they've come upon some new revolution that we don't know about, which is not only insulting, but it's ridiculous."
Deborah Tuerkheimer, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago and a former child abuse prosecutor, has been researching scientific and legal developments surrounding the syndrome for about four years.
She argues that mounting research has, in fact, "cast doubt" upon the forensic significance of the triad injuries, undermining thousands of convictions that hinged on them in absence of other evidence.
"There has been a significant change in the way pediatricians and pathologists in particular talk about this diagnosis. There's been a move away from the claims that the triad is ... exclusively diagnostic," said Tuerkheimer, who's written on the topic for The New York Times and the Washington University Law Review.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the movement exists and these cases are being treated differently than they were two, three years, even a year ago," she said. "It's just that the change is happening more slowly than I'd hoped and much more haphazardly. I'd like to see a systemic review of these cases where the triad was the basis for conviction."
Quinn has not commented on Jacobazzi's clemency bid. An earlier petition was swiftly rejected by his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich.
On June 23, Jacobazzi supporters joined her mother, sister and attorney in Springfield for a brief, emotional plea outside the Illinois Capitol.
Laura Nimke, a former child abuse prevention specialist from downstate Streator who lost her job after she was falsely accused of shaking her daughter, was among those to speak out on Jacobazzi's behalf.
Nimke said she and her child were reunited after doctors confirmed her daughter, who has since recovered, was suffering from a previously existing medical condition.
"I am fortunate," she said. "It's frightening to think I could have faced the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison if the circumstances had been different."
Jacobazzi already has completed the bulk of her 32-year term, only half of which she must serve, according to 1994 sentencing guidelines. She had faced up to 60 years.
Looking back, she describes the experience as a "nightmare."
"It was like life stopped," she said. "It was like going into the 'Twilight Zone' and trying to wake up but you can't."
Jacobazzi initially became a licensed day-care provider so she could stay home with her young son and pursue her passion for working with children, she said.
She now lives with 19 other female felons assigned to her bunk-bed prison unit. She passes time at the medium-security facility in downstate Lincoln by working as a teaching aide -- a job she's had for 11 years. She's also completed an associate degree and courses in work training, career technology and business management.
Jacobazzi said she dreams of returning home one day to live a "normal life" with her family, and has faith in God that it will happen.
"I'm staying positive even though it's a very difficult situation," she said. "Knowing people believe you -- that's important."
Should she be released, Jacobazzi said she would like to become an advocate for women who are wrongly convicted of child abuse.
"Maybe that's my calling," she said.
• Daily Herald State Government Writer Mike Riopell contributed to this report.