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Herrin woman's story helped change how shaken baby cases are prosecuted

Carbondale Southern Illinoisan

Wednesday, April 19, 2017  |  Article  |  Molly Parker

Child welfare (30)

HERRIN — Brynden Tyler Gibson would have turned 12 years old this January if, according to prosecutors, he hadn’t been shaken to death by his mother’s then-boyfriend just over a decade ago.

On Dec. 10, 2006, Rebecca Hamberg (her last name was Gibson at the time) left her home in Herrin and headed out to work. Peter Kerrigan, her boyfriend of three months, according to family, agreed to watch her two children, then 22-month-old Brynden and his older brother, who was three years old at the time of the incident.

It was a decision that would haunt Hamberg for the rest of her life. Only a few short days later, she cradled her baby in her arms at St. Louis Children’s Hospital as the doctors removed him from life support. He died two days later, at 8:37 p.m. on Dec. 12, 2006.

She buried her son in a tiny casket in a Carterville cemetery. But there’s no way to bury that kind of pain. Hamberg dedicated much of her free time in the years ahead to advocating for stiffer penalties for people who bring serious injury or death to babies by shaking them, which is what prosecutors said Kerrigan did the day Brynden landed in the emergency room in Herrin, from which he was transported to St. Louis. 

As well, she joined a growing movement — through a personal blog and social media pages — to bring awareness to the challenges that young parents face, and to educate new parents about ways they can keep calm if their nerves wear thin after a baby in their care has cried for hours on end.

“It was her passion. It became her life,” said her father, Paul Baize, also of Herrin, of his daughter’s efforts to bring attention to a condition commonly referred to as shaken baby syndrome. “She was aggressive about fighting for children’s rights.”

She took her fight to the Capitol building in Springfield. With the help of former state Rep. John Bradley, the General Assembly passed a law in her son’s honor. Brynden’s Law, signed by then-Gov. Pat Quinn in July 2010, enhanced sentencing requirements in shaken baby deaths and required that convicted offenders register for 10 years with the Illinois Child Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Registry maintained by the Illinois State Police.

If she were still alive today, her loved ones say they have no doubt she would still be in the fight. But hers also was an untimely death.

Hamberg suffered a massive heart attack and died Sept. 25, 2015, at the age of 33. Including Brynden, she was a mother to four boys, three of whom she left behind.

While family members say she had underlying health issues, they can’t help but wonder if her broken heart also played a part in her premature death. 

“The death of that child changed her entire life and I know there was stress related to it a great deal,” Baize said. “I’m not a doctor and I don’t know if that led to heart disease, but I know she was affected very greatly by the death of Brynden.”

At the time of the incident in 2006, Kerrigan was accused of violently shaking the young child in a fit of frustration and rage, and failing to call for help for hours despite his dire condition.

In an initial call Kerrigan made to Hamberg that day, Kerrigan told her that the child had fallen in the kitchen, and that he had given him a Tylenol for his pain and put him to sleep. In a second call some time later, he told her that Brynden had not awakened and was breathing irregularly. Family was notified, and a babysitter arrived at the home to find Brynden on the couch without a blanket, limp and barely breathing. The babysitter said Kerrigan repeated, “I messed up” and “I’m going to jail” several times.

The above timeline of events were as described by Williamson County Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Irvin in the July 2009 court hearing in which Kerrigan pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, according to The Southern’s archives. At the time, the state was prepared to call witnesses to corroborate these allegations had the case moved to a trial. As part of the plea deal, the state dismissed its original charges of murder and aggravated battery of a child.

In an interview with The Southern Illinoisan newspaper at the time, Hamberg said she was angered by the plea deal. Had he been convicted of the murder charge, Kerrigan would have served a much longer sentence.

At the time, Irvin defended the deal as the best result the state could hope for given the circumstances of the case, namely that investigators had a difficult time getting information from medical personnel at the hospital in St. Louis, also according to archive newspaper accounts.

At sentencing in 2009, Kerrigan received 10 years for the crime. Though, he was a free man by November 2011 because of day-for-day credits and the time he had already served in the Williamson County Jail while his case proceeded.

The fact that he walked away rather quickly, as Hamberg perceived it, from a crime that took a child’s life is what led her to fight for enhanced sentences in certain shaken baby cases.

The law was not retroactive, though, and therefore did not apply to Kerrigan.

Denise McCaffrey, director of prevention awareness and education for Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, said that cases such as Hamberg’s are unfortunately not unique. She said there is little uniformity nationwide in how shaken baby cases are prosecuted, leading to sentences that range from probation to lengthy sentences for murder. Further complicating matters, there has been a great deal of controversy in the courtroom over the past decade or so about shaken baby syndrome, making some prosecutors hesitant to pursue maximum penalties, and more likely to agree to a plea deal because of hurdles they may face if doctors are not cooperative, or the evidence is inconclusive.

In the vast majority of alleged shaken baby cases, there are no witnesses, and the last person with the child has generally been looked to as the responsible party, even if they deny it. But some high-profile cases have been overturned in recent years as experts presented conflicting testimony to other potential causes of the neurological symptoms that doctors once believed without question were related to shaken baby syndrome.

Because of this, McCaffrey said that child abuse experts have made emergency room doctors the target of outreach and educational efforts to improve techniques to make an accurate diagnosis and preserve critical evidence when abusive head trauma is suspected. But McCaffrey said she believes wholeheartedly that shaken baby syndrome is a real medical issues based in science and dismisses any literature or experts suggesting otherwise. The vast majority of U.S. medical doctors agree, and claims to the contrary have created a “chilling effect” on child protection hearings and criminal prosecutions, according to a 2016 study published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

As for how often babies are injured or killed as the result of shaken baby syndrome, McCaffrey said that’s difficult to determine because comprehensive data is not collected nationwide or by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Though DCFS keeps a variety of statistics concerning child abuse, a spokeswoman said she was not aware of any agency reports specific to shaken baby syndrome or abusive head trauma.

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome estimates there are about 1,300 U.S. cases per year — about a quarter of them fatal.

McCaffrey said that boyfriends of single moms are commonly the ones who commit such acts. In a good number of these types of cases, the perpetrator has a history of violent or aggressive behavior, low-impulse control, and often little experience with children, she said.

“We often see that when it isn’t the biological parent” that has shaken a child, she said. Without casting blame on the mothers, McCaffrey said everyone should get to know as well as possible the people with whom they leave their children, including by spending as much time together as possible before leaving them to babysit solo. 

McCaffrey said there also are many cases where seemingly well-adjusted parents or caregivers without any history of violence have said they “just snapped” and shaken a child as the stress of a baby they could not quiet for hours led to a serious but uncharacteristic lapse in judgment and self control.

“Crying is the No. 1 trigger for shaken baby syndrome,” she said, adding that even the most seasoned caregiver can get frustrated when he or she is unable to comfort a baby, as adults feel like that is their role. Awareness campaigns have centered on educating new parents about ways to safely put a crying baby down and walk away while they calm themselves and gather the patience to return to holding the crying baby.

That message also was important to Hamberg, said her sister, Michelle Palmer. 

“Rebecca would want people to know that you should ask for help because I know that what Peter did might have been malicious, but a lot of times, it’s just a stressed out mom or dad or somebody to try to get the baby to stop crying … that it’s OK to walk away, it’s OK to say it’s too much, it’s OK to ask for help," Palmer said. 

"Rebecca would say every time she made a post, every time she wrote something, every time she said something, she would end it with 'never, ever shake a baby.'"

Every year on Brayden’s birthday after his death, Hamberg baked a birthday cake and she and her other boys would release balloons beside his grave site in his memory. She called him P’Nut and even tattooed a message about shaken baby syndrome on her arm in his memory.

It’s the type of incident a family never really recovers from, added Baize, Hamberg’s father and Brynden’s grandfather.

All these years later, those left behind still live with the horror of that day. Baize said he finds ways to have peace, but he still often bumps up against those painful memories — such as on his daughter's birthday the year after she died when he broke down and reached out to his pastor for spiritual guidance.

“Rebecca lost her child and now I’ve lost Rebecca,” he said. “It is life changing and it never ends.”