Former day care worker suing after conviction overturned in alleged shaken baby case

Nearly a year after a judge overturned the murder conviction of a former suburban day care worker accused of killing a newborn in her care, the woman is suing investigators for allegedly withholding evidence and fabricating scientific findings, according to court documents.

Jennifer Del Prete, 46, spent nearly a decade in prison after she was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 2003 death of 14-month-old Isabella Zielinski. Authorities accused Del Prete of shaking the 4-month-old at the day care where Del Prete served as a caretaker. The baby died about 10 months later.

During her trial, a state medical expert testified that Isabella’s injuries could have been inflicted only on the day she became unresponsive, ignoring evidence that the baby had suffered an unexplained brain injury days earlier.

A Freedom of Information request filed by journalism students at Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project uncovered a memo written by the lead Romeoville detective who worried that the pathologist who conducted the autopsy did not agree with the shaken baby syndrome theory.

The new evidence led a judge to release her in 2014 while her case was reviewed, and her conviction was overturned in August 2016 in the appellate court. A judged ordered a new trial. The Will County state’s attorney’s office is appealing the ruling.

On Thursday, Del Prete filed a lawsuit against the officers from Romeoville and Plainfield and the state witness who she claims fabricated scientific findings to convict her. She alleges the withheld memo and the disregard of other medical witnesses who disagreed with the shaken baby theory constituted a violation of due process and resulted in malicious prosecution.

At a news conference Thursday, an emotional Del Prete recalled that when Isabella fell unconscious in her care, it brought on the “worst nightmare that I could ever imagine.” She called 911 and performed CPR before the before the child was rushed to the hospital.

“I remember calling my father telling him what happened. I was crying. I said, ‘It was someone I cared for, I loved, who I kissed and hugged.’ My dad said, don’t worry hon, you did everything you could. You’ll probably get an award for saving her life. That did not happen that day or any day after that.”

Del Prete was charged with a felony assault, which was later amended to murder when the baby died months later.

Del Prete recounted how her conviction in the child’s death caused her to miss out on the lives of her own children, who were 7 and 15 at the time. She got choked up at times as she lamented not being there for high school graduations, driver licenses and other life events while she remained in prison.

“I chose to be in protective custody for a year … because it was so scary for me there. I was labeled a baby killer,” she said holding their hands at the news conference. “I don’t know if anything can make up for what I went through, but I never stopped fighting to make my way back to my kids and my family.”

Del Prete’s case is one in a series of legal battles over often difficult-to-solve deaths involving head injuries in infants, but it’s something her attorney Jon Loevy said he hopes can improve through advancements in science.

“There were doctors who testified in earlier decades that they believed if there was swelling on the brain, there was no other explanation because a 31/2-month-old baby couldn’t explain it,” Loevy said. “But science has since caught up and now there are a lot of explanations.”

Prosecutors and law enforcement have continued to defend the case against Del Prete. Charles Pelkie, spokesman for Will County state’s attorney’s office, said prosecutors are appealing the judge’s decision to vacate her conviction.

“In our office every case is based on the evidence and in this case we feel that we have enough compelling evidence to move forward,” Pelkie said.

Romeoville Village Manager Steve Gulden released a statement, saying the village “is confident that its officers acted lawfully and appropriately and that they will be exonerated in the litigation.”

Twitter @_tonybriscoe

Copyright © 2017, Chicago Tribune


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