Shaken Baby Syndrome Lands Florida Babysitter in Court For Murder 37 Years Later

Photo: (Photo : ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images)

A Florida woman was charged with the first-degree murder of her former ward, who died in 2019 at the age of 35. Forensic experts testified that Benjamin Dowling's death had been linked to the shaken baby syndrome he experienced under Terry McKirchy, the babysitter who cared for him when he was 5-months-old.

In 1984, McKirchy was hired to look after Dowling. The baby's mother took him to a doctor when she noticed that he had breathing difficulties and his body was limp. The doctor told the family that the baby had severed blood vessels in his brain due to being shaken with such a force.

The baby suffered permanent brain damage, and disabilities and his family sued the babysitter for aggravated child abuse and attempted murder in 1985. Because she did not contest the lawsuit, McKirchy got off easy and spent just 60 days in jail. She was under three-year probation with the authorities.

Dowling had a short but challenging life as a person with disabilities. When he passed away in 2019, his family sued for murder. The Broward County grand jury indicted McKirchy after determining that the shaken baby syndrome case was a homicide.

McKirchy, who currently lives in Texas, is now in jail and awaiting her murder trial in Florida.

'My Conscience is Clear'

In 1985, McKirchy told the court that she did not do anything to the baby and that her conscience is clear. However, she accepted the plea deal when the Dowlings filed the first lawsuit because she wanted to put this behind her and move on with her life. McKirchy was pregnant when she had to face court.

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The Dowlings hired the babysitter because they both worked and they were disappointed when McKirchy's plea deal was light. The family was expecting that the babysitter would be in prison for 12 to 17 years.

Ryal Gaudiosi, the public defender in the 1985 case, said that McKirchy's time in prison and her probation were fair. The lawyer died in 2009.

David Weinstein, a Florida lawyer who is not part of the case, analyzed with NBC News that there were many unanswered questions about the plea deal. He said that McKirchy might not have gotten a heavier conviction because there wasn't enough medical evidence or witnesses.

Shaken Baby Syndrome Facts

Rae and Joe Dowling said that their son didn't experience baby milestones like crawling, walking, talking, or learning how to feed himself. As a child, Benjamin did not get to eat ice cream or hamburgers, and he couldn't articulate if he had an itch or was in pain. He also didn't respond to what was going around him because of his mental disabilities.

According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, about 600 to 1,400 shaken baby syndrome cases happen every year. Severely shaking a baby who won't stop crying can lead to serious injuries because their neck muscles are still weak to properly support their head. Thus, the force of a shake can lead to lifelong trauma.

Symptoms may vary with each child, but they may include seizures and convulsions, decreased appetite, vomiting, changes in the baby's consciousness, drowsiness, irritability, changes in the position of the head, breathing problems, and slow and shallow respiration. The act of shaking a baby violently may result in cardiac arrest, coma, or death.

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