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John Plunkett, pathologist who battled shaken baby syndrome, dies at 70

April 20, 2018 GMT

While touring the country for a documentary featuring Dr. John Plunkett, filmmaker Meryl Goldsmith remembers strangers in every city greeting Plunkett as a hero.

“They would say, ‘You’re our hero. You’re our savior. You’re a godsend — an angel,’ ” Goldsmith said. “He would deflect because he was too humble to take the credit, and we all know he deserves the credit. All these families viewed him as the hero of their lives.”

Plunkett, a forensic pathologist, spent nearly 20 years challenging shaken baby syndrome diagnoses. He was a leading critic of the theory he once accepted, and his work helped reverse hundreds of convictions based on bad forensics.

Plunkett died from cancer April 4, surrounded by his family at his farm in Welch, Minn. He was 70.

Plunkett provided expert testimony in 50 convictions that were overturned and personally consulted in hundreds of other cases in his “voracious quest for truth,” Goldsmith said. He won a lifetime achievement award from the Wisconsin Innocence Project in 2016 and was the central character in Goldsmith’s “The Syndrome,” an award-winning 2014 documentary.

“He was radiating with warmth and friendliness. You could sense his knowledge and brilliance was extraordinary,” Goldsmith said. “Combined with his deep empathy and need to help people who were suffering, he emerged from that as a leader of this movement of forensic integrity.”

Plunkett was born in St. Paul and earned his medical degree from the University of Minnesota in 1972. He was a pathologist for 26 years at Regina Hospital in Hastings and headed a coroner’s office for seven counties.

Plunkett saw what victims of abuse looked like and noticed that many shaken baby syndrome (SBS) cases lacked external injuries. He consulted physicists and neurologists and assembled his own team of medical professionals to test the theory. He published his findings in 2001, detailing similar symptoms of brain bleeds in children who had fallen short distances and those diagnosed with SBS.

His wife, Donna McFarren Plunkett, called her late husband an optimist, and when the article was met with skepticism and personal attacks, he sought to restore those wrongfully convicted to their families.

Plunkett, the oldest of eight children, had a warm persona that connected colleagues, family and friends. His son Ben Plunkett said more than 100 people came to his birthday celebration last year.

Goldsmith’s cousin, Susan Goldsmith, is an investigative journalist who did research for the film and flew from Oregon to attend Plunkett’s funeral service last weekend. She said Audrey Edmunds, a caretaker convicted of murder in a shaken baby case who served 11 years in prison before she was exonerated, drove from northern Wisconsin through a blizzard to attend Plunkett’s funeral.

Plunkett spent his final years on his farm, where he cared for horses and shared his home with guests. Family and friends stayed at the farm and a neighbor’s home to wait out the storm after his funeral, which many called a celebration.

“There won’t ever be another John Plunkett,” Susan Goldsmith said. “He was someone willing to risk everything to help others. He wouldn’t rest — reconnecting children who were sent to foster homes and parents sent to prison wrongfully — without scientific integrity.”

Plunkett is survived by his wife; sons Ben and Matt; two grandchildren, and seven siblings. Memorials can be made to the Albert Sullivan Endowed Scholarship II Fund for the University of Minnesota Medical School or to the Wisconsin Innocence Project SBS Fund. Services have been held.

Trevor Squire is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.