Audrey Edmunds

Audrey Edmunds (Photo: Randy Belice)

Audrey Edmunds (Photo: Randy Belice)

Eleven years in prison as a result of erroneous medical testimony

Audrey Edmunds, who babysat neighborhood children in her home in Waunakee, Wisconsin, while awaiting the birth of her third child, was convicted in 1996 of first-degree reckless homicide for the suspected shaking death of an infant in her care.

Six-month-old Natalie Beard died on October 16, 1995, after her mother, Cindy Beard, left her with Audrey. Cindy mentioned that Natalie had been fussy that morning and had taken only half of her bottle, but both Cindy and the father of another child said she otherwise seemed normal. An hour later, Audrey summoned police and paramedics. When they arrived, Natalie's pupils were dilated and she seemed to be having trouble breathing. She was rushed to a hospital in nearby Madison, where she died that evening.

An autopsy revealed that Natalie had suffered extensive brain damage, and a forensic pathologist attributed the death to shaken baby syndrome (SBS). On March 19, 1996, Edmunds was charged with first-degree reckless homicide.

When she came to trial the following December in the Dane County Circuit Court, the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Gretchen Hayward, presented several expert witnesses who testified to "a reasonable degree of medical certainty" that Natalie had been a victim of SBS. The experts unequivocally told the jury that, after suffering her fatal injury, Natalie would have had "an immediate and obvious response" and would not have seemed to be normal when her mother left her with Audrey.

Audrey took the stand in her own defense, testifying that she had not shaken Natalie. Her defense lawyer, Stephen Hurley, presented an expert who testified that the fatal injury could have been caused earlier. Indeed, Natalie's medical records showed that she had been treated repeatedly for lethargy, irritability, vomiting — symptoms sometimes resulting from brain injury — suggesting that the parents could have caused her death.

Hayward countered, in closing, that the medical history was irrelevant — and the jury agreed, finding Audrey guilty after eight hours of deliberation on November 26, 1996. Judge Daniel Moeser sentenced her to 18 years in prison.

The conviction stunned Audrey's friends and neighbors, who simply could not believe that she possibly could be guilty. One neighbor told the Madison Capital Times, "She is such a warm and caring person. I've seen her in some stressful situations and been impressed with how she dealt with them. There's just no way Audrey could have done something like this." Another was quoted by Madison Magazine as saying, "I never, ever even considered she might have done it. I understand she was the last person with the child, but anyone who knew her knew there was just no way."

Hayward, the prosecutor, dismissed such sentiment, insisting that Audrey's supporters simply "didn't know the real her" and that the stress of being pregnant contributed to her presumed crime.

Hayward, of course, was not alone in the firm belief that Audrey was guilty. At the time of her trial, and for years to come, no credible medical expert questioned that Natalie had been a victim of SBS."

By 2006, however, medical opinion had changed significantly. As a result, Keith Findley, co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, came to Audrey's defense. He filed a motion for a new trial asserting that in the decade since her conviction "a large body of new scientific evidence has emerged that supports her claim of innocence."

At an ensuing hearing, Findley presented experts who testified that symptoms they once thought were proof of SBS had been linked inked to dozens of other causes, including accidents, illness, infection, old injuries, and congenital defects. One expert, Dr. Patrick Barnes, a pediatric neuroradiologist at Stanford University, testified that even something as mundane as an ear infection could spread to the brain with fatal consequences.

Judge Moeser, the trial judge, denied Findley's motion, but on appeal the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held on January 31, 2008, that "a shift in mainstream medical opinion" had cast doubt on whether shaking could have caused the brain injury that caused Natalie Beard's death. The court ordered a new trial for Audrey, but the District Attorney's office dropped the case on July 11, 2008.


— Rob Warden