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Prosecutors in San Francisco have dismissed the charges against a man accused of killing his infant son. It's just the latest case to raise questions about the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome and whether it's sometimes misapplied.
As NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, the father had one key advantage, he had enough money to pay for medical experts who cast doubt on the prosecution's theory.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Here's how Kristian Aspelin's nightmare began. On a November afternoon, two years ago, he called 911.
(SOUNDBITE OF 911 CALL)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you need a paramedic right now, sir?
KRISTIAN ASPELIN: I don't know. I dropped my baby and he went limp. He's still breathing and...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right. Now let me send you a paramedic. What is the address?
SHAPIRO: Aspelin's older two-year-old son had opened the refrigerator and dropped strawberries and pizza on the floor. Aspelin says he walked in to clean it up, holding onto his three-month-old son, Johan. But then he slipped, fell backwards, and dropped the baby on the tile floor. Now the father is speaking publicly for the first time in this interview with NPR.
ASPELIN: So I ran into the kitchen to address what was going on and I brought Johan along with me in my right hand. And eventually, after cleaning up, slipped and fell. And, you know, I will never forgive myself for bringing Johan into the kitchen, you know, but it was an accident.
SHAPIRO: Five days after the fall, the child died in a hospital. The San Francisco medical examiner did an autopsy and found injuries consistent with shaken baby syndrome. Aspelin was charged with causing the death of his son. But earlier this month, prosecutors in San Francisco quietly dropped the charges, after Aspelin's attorney presented reports from six medical experts and one biomechanical engineer. Those defense experts explained how the child's death was consistent with the fall described by the father, and argued there was a lack of evidence to suggest the child was deliberately injured.
ASPELIN: We recreated our old kitchen in a warehouse.
SHAPIRO: Aspelin's defense even hired a video company that made a model of the family's kitchen and filmed Aspelin, holding a doll, slipping on the floor.
ASPELIN: Before we did the reenactment, I didn't know if I would be able to - how I would react to going into that environment and try to relive those moments that have, you know, basically haunted me for a long time.
SHAPIRO: One issue was whether a child could die from a short fall of just about three feet. The video showed how the child's head could have hit the hard tile. Now, if you're thinking that Aspelin and his lawyer just went out and found seven expert guns-for-hire, that's not what happened. There were experts who've testified on both sides in child abuse cases. Some explained how scientific knowledge about child deaths is changing and how they've come to understand there are many alternative possibilities to what's often thought to be deliberate and violent shaking. Stuart Hanlon is Aspelin's attorney.
STUART HANLON: Innocent people get convicted, especially in these kind of cases. And we have to have a better way to protect people from false allegations of shaken baby.
SHAPIRO: For his defense, Aspelin went through his savings, sold his house, borrowed from family and friends to raise over a million dollars. It cost about a hundred thousand dollars just for the expert medical witnesses - a price that makes them unavailable to many defendants. Last year, NPR's investigative unit, with PBS Frontline and ProPublica, found 23 cases of child deaths where charges were later reversed or dropped.
Since then, a Texas man who was the focus of one of our stories was released from prison. And in California, a woman who was the focus of another had her sentence commuted. No one from the San Francisco D.A.'s office would speak on tape. But a spokeswoman confirmed that prosecutors, in an unusual arrangement, worked collaboratively with Aspelin's medical experts. In the end, the district attorney concluded there was not enough evidence, as the spokeswoman put it, to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.