MITCH HARRIS: Conviction by opinion - her crime doesn't add up

Opinion 16/11/2017

Twenty-one-year-old Shayal Upashna Sami is waiting to be sentenced. She is facing years in jail for killing Aaliyah Chand, in what is known as the Christchurch Babysitter case. What is missing from this case is any physical evidence she was the baby’s killer, other than she was the person at the scene of the crime. She seems to have been convicted by expert opinion only.

For me, her crime doesn’t add up. She was known to be good-tempered, helped raise her brother’s two boys and had already been looking after the baby for seven weeks. They developed such a close bond Aaliyah began calling Sami “mama”.

This does not seem like some kid in over her head looking after an infant. She did not try to cover anything up, immediately sought medical attention after discovering the child was hurt and never altered her story.

Her defence lawyer, Jonathan Eaton QC, told me he had never been involved in a case in which somebody had been convicted purely on medical opinion. This even-tempered, sweet kid apparently just snapped for no reason and beat the daylights out of this poor baby. And if the jury really believed the only scenario anyone could come up with, why was she convicted of manslaughter? Snapping and beating the baby repeatedly sounds like murder to me. Was there doubt?

There have been numerous cases where children have been removed from their families, or parents accused of serious assault, on the word of doctors because they cannot find any other plausible answer. It is the climate we live in - rampant child abuse and authorities under pressure to do something about it. So innocent parents become the collateral damage because experts do not want to take any chances with their professional reputations.

A recent case saw a couple whose child had broken ribs taken into state care. As soon as their second baby was born, his mother was given four days to breastfeed the child before he was taken by order of the Family Court after the Ministry for Vulnerable Children intervened. It turned out the first child had brittle bone disease, where the mere act of breathing can break bones.

In a follow up story about a man’s two-year battle to be able to see his child after a false accusation based on medical evidence, reporter Tony Wall wrote, “A Star-Times investigation in 2010 revealed concerns Starship’s Te Puaruruhau child protection unit was acting like a Police Station, treating parents as guilty until proven innocent and misdiagnosing accidental head injuries as assault.”

I have a non-verbal child who was coming home from school with unexplained bruises. We talked to the school but were mystified as to what was happening. Out of the blue CYFs turned up accusing me of assaulting my precious daughter. After a lot of freaking out things settled down and the bruising stopped. But what the experience taught me is that when medical, education, police or other professionals do not know the answers, their default position is to point the finger at parents and caregivers.

A couple of years later, a teacher’s aide at the school was convicted for an historical assault on a child. That did not prove anything - but it did dent the school’s claim that my daughter could not possibly have been hurt at the school.

Eaton told me the first medical expert the Police approached could not say for sure the injuries were not caused by Aaliyah falling off the couch. So, according to him, they went expert-shopping. As Mark Twain observed, an expert is someone from out of town. “Leading US Paediatric Expert” Dr Cindy Christian testified that falls from low heights by those under five cause deaths once every two million children. Dr Christian is a very credible Paediatrician, but she is also a leading campaigner against child abuse in Philadelphia.

It is a strange sort of statistic, but maybe little Aaliyah was the one in two million? It’s possible. The only thing known for certain is that nature, and public opinion, abhors a vacuum. The world wanted someone to blame for the death of this child. Given there was no satisfactory alternative explanation, the experts have determined that the unlikely Shayal Sami will go to jail.

Night Talk with Mitch Harris, 8pm-12am Monday-Thursday on RadioLIVE, and streaming live to the rova app on Android and iPhone.