- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - The years that Todd Fenton, Roger Haut and their research team spent smashing infant pig skulls in a lab at Michigan State University could change the way forensic scientists interpret skull fractures in children and the way they determine what’s child abuse and what’s not.

What they found was that multiple skull fractures and fractures that aren’t connected can come from a single impact. They found that the greater the impact force, the more fractures there were, and that the direction - or line of the actual fracture - pointed back to the location of impact, the Lansing State Journal (https://on.lsj.com/1gj8u1R ) reported.

Currently, when medical examiners or doctors see a child’s skull with multiple fractures, it’s an immediate red flag for child abuse, said Fenton, director of the MSU’s Forensic Anthropology Laboratory.

“It might have happened that way. But it also might have been from one blow,” he said. “Knowing what we know now, our fear is that there may be people that have been wrongly accused of child abuse based upon those protocols.”

Fenton and Haut, a professor of biomechanics, use the example of half an orange peel placed on a table with open end facing down. If you press on the top, the force puts a strain on the peel at its edges. If it gets great enough, it will crack, but at the edges and not the location of the initial force.

Their research could make it possible for forensic scientists to prove or disprove child abuse by examining the location, number and direction of skull fractures, something the researchers call the “fracture patterns.”

There are two general standards for forensic evidence to be admitted as evidence in a trial, both requiring that it be accepted by its scientific community, said Fred Fochtman, director of the Forensic Science and Law Master’s Program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

“Scientists are always open,” he said after hearing a summary of Fenton and Haut’s research. “They’re rarely skeptical, unless it sounds weird. And this doesn’t sound weird.”

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It was frequent trips between their two offices on the fourth floor of East Fee Hall that set the project in motion a decade ago.

Determining the circumstances of a child’s death are difficult, so as early as 2005, Fenton said he found himself walking down the hall to talk with Haut, an engineer, whose expertise was helpful even though it wasn’t related to child abuse.

“It became very clear at that point that we could probably pull together and solve this scientific gap, or fill this scientific gap,” Fenton said.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Justice and used infant pig skulls, which were struck with varying force and with instruments of varying sizes. The researchers then recorded the fracture patterns.

Fenton and Haut were careful to note that all the skulls were from infant pigs that died by accident and weren’t euthanized for research purposes.

According to their research, instead of several fractures being a sign of several impacts - a possible sign of abuse - it can be a sign of a single incident, like a child falling out of bed.

What their model doesn’t show is intent, as in did someone intend to drop a child, Haut said.

“We can maybe help determine what actually happened,” he said. “And then we can compare that to testimony, either from a defendant or the prosecution.”

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Fenton and MSU’s Forensic Anthropology Laboratory consult with medical examiners and law enforcement around the state to help identify human remains and determine the circumstances of death.

But whether Fenton and Haut’s model makes it into courtrooms will be up to prosecutors or defense attorneys.

If it’s helpful for a jury to understand the charges and it’s evidence a scientist can discuss, then it might be worth trying to admit as evidence, Eaton County Prosecuting Attorney Doug Lloyd said.

“But in the back of their mind they know there will be motions about whether to accept it,” he said. “Even if it’s successful, there’s a good chance it’s appealed.”

The recent trend in expert witness testimony is to discuss how confident the expert is in the findings rather than giving definitive determination, Fochtman said, because any science has its limits.

“Obviously they can examine the evidence and present the scientific findings,” he said. “The term science now is tantamount in forensics. Is there any kind of uncertainty associated with it? In true life, in real circumstances, there is always some uncertainty.”

Fenton and Haut’s model is accurate with the infant pig skulls, depending on the factors, between 82 and 95 percent, according to their research.

If they get additional funding, they’ll begin working on fracture patterns in adult pig skulls.

They’re also working with computer scientists to build and expand their database of the recorded skull fractures to make analysis easier and available across the country. They call it the Fracture Printing Interface - a nod to fingerprinting, a staple of forensic science.

“Pediatric deaths have been and still are quite challenging to determine the circumstances of death,” Fenton said. “And often times, when those cases go to trial, expert witnesses line up on both sides and it can become really contentious.

“Before we started to do our work, the foundational basis for interpretation of cranial fractures really wasn’t out there.”

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Information from: Lansing State Journal, https://www.lansingstatejournal.com

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