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Shocking: How Faulty Science Lands Innocent People Behind Bars as Accused Child Murderers

Medical examiners and coroners have repeatedly mishandled cases of infant and child deaths, helping to put innocent people behind bars.

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Heather Kirkwood was an unlikely candidate to take on Lopez's case. She had spent the bulk of her career litigating anti-trust cases for the Federal Trade Commission, and she lives 1,700 miles away in Seattle.

After learning about Lopez from a relative living in Texas, Kirkwood agreed to represent him. For her, Isis' death presented a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to solve. Lopez struck her as "a nice young man" and the "circumstances of the case seemed weird as hell."

"My gut sense kept telling me this was a sick baby who was neglected," she said.

After taking on Lopez's case, Kirkwood started contacting physicians in hopes of getting them to analyze Isis' medical history. She sent a stack of documents to Dr. Richard Soderstrom, an emeritus professor of gynecology at the University of Washington. As an adviser to the Food and Drug Administration, Soderstrom served on a panel that studied the accuracy and safety of the colposcope, a device that can be used to take photos of injuries in sexual assault exams.

Isis Vas had been examined using a colposcope. But as Soderstrom stared at the photos taken of her, he wasn't convinced that she'd been violated. "I couldn't see anything that would say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there was penetration," he said.

Soderstrom gave a sworn affidavit stating that, in his opinion, the photos did not suggest there had been sexual abuse. No semen or pubic hair had been found on Isis' body. Further, Soderstrom said, the lack of injuries to the child's inner thighs, labia major, and hymen, was "inconsistent with abuse."

Kirkwood also approached Dr. Michael Laposata, the chief pathologist for Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and a leading expert on blood disorders. At Laposata's sprawling lab, white-coated technologists run some 6 million tests per year, feeding a never-ending line of blood sles into an array of machines.

Looking at the file on Isis, Laposata quickly homed in on the tests run on her blood while she was in the hospital. To gauge how the blood is clotting, physicians typically begin with a pair of basic tests called the PT and PTT. In Isis, the "PT and PTT were markedly abnormal," Laposata said, adding that other tests also suggested a coagulation disorder. Where McClain had seen a "classic" case of blunt force trauma, Laposata saw something entirely different, a "classic picture" of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation, a potentially lethal condition that can cause bleeding from sufferers' every orifice.

Based on the baby's "dark, tarry stools," elevated white blood cell count, and abnormal liver function tests, Laposata concluded, "something had to be going on for days" -- long before the 40 minutes Lopez was alone with the baby.

An infection could have led to DIC, and, eventually, to a fatal collapse, Laposata said. DIC could also explain Isis' bruises and the bumps on her head that Lopez and others believed were spider bites, he added.

"The reality is when your blood is so thin, when you're so unable to make a clot, you can just develop bruises and they can be spontaneous," he said.

In an interview, Laposata pulled up a PowerPoint presentation he uses to teach students how hard it is to distinguish child abuse from blood-clotting afflictions. One slide featured photos of two small children. Both of their faces were splotched with bruises. One had been battered. The other had idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a condition that causes the blood to quit making platelets.

Without a host of lab tests, Laposata said, it would be impossible to figure out which little boy needed medical help and which one needed child protective services.