Scores of convictions could be challenged if a legal test case involving a Birmingham man throws doubt on the existence of so-called "shaken baby syndrome" as a textbook diagnosis of death or serious injury in young children.
Three Court of Appeal judges yesterday began reviewing the convictions of three men and a woman on charges of murder, manslaughter or grievous bodily harm. They include the case of Alan Cherry, who was convicted at Birmingham Crown Court in 1995 of the manslaughter of his girlfriend's 22-month-old daughter Sarah Eburne-Day.
Mr Cherry, who is no longer in custody, denied shaking her in a fit of temper and claimed she fell off a stool on which she was standing.
More than 90 other convictions could be challenged if the judges throw doubt on the medical evidence relied on to establish guilt in the test cases. The outcome could also affect hundreds of Family Division cases in which a parent - usually the father - has been denied access to a child on the basis of allegedly violent treatment.
The appeals result from a review ordered by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith following the successful appeal by Angela Cannings against her convictions of murdering her two baby sons.
Mrs Cannings was cleared after judges ruled that, in the present state of scientific knowledge, no one should be prosecuted solely on the basis of medical opinion which was disputed between experts.
The review ordered by Lord Goldsmith involved some 300 infant death convictions, including more than 90 which raised the issue of shaken baby syndrome.
Michael Mansfield QC told the Court of Appeal that the four people involved in the test case were found guilty solely on the basis of expert medical opinions which had since been thrown into doubt.
The jury in each case was asked to infer from the expert evidence that the child victim had been violently mishandled by the defendant in a loss of control or temper, he said.
"There is no suggestion that any of these carers were child abusers," he said. "It is not a child abuse case. The evidence was the reverse - that they did care and were loving and supportive."
New research since 2001 had led to a reappraisal of the "triad" of features involved in shaken baby syndrome - swelling of the brain, bleeding between the brain and the skull, and bleeding in the retina of the eyes.
In a two-week hearing, the court will hear fresh evidence that such injuries can result from the child falling from a relatively low height, may be linked to vaccinations or medication causing lack of oxygen to the brain, or could be linked to a difficult birth or even have genetic causes.