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The Death of Innocents offers an unbelievable but true tale that fulfills the promise of its tagline: Murder, medicine, and high-stakes science. Following prosecutor Bill Fitzpatrick in Onondaga County, New York, journalists Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan unravel the tale of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, otherwise known as SIDS, in upstate New York in the 1970s. They first reveal the details of the case of Stephen Van Der Sluys, a father convicted of murdering his child for insurance money, establishing that parents don’t always have the best interests of their children at heart; this then lays the groundwork for the story of the successful prosecution of a mother whose children’s deaths had been considered as the basis for the theory of prolonged apnea as the cause of recurrent SIDS. With the prodding of Fitzpatrick, the prosecutor in nearby Tioga County then investigated and called in a slew of local and state investigators and national experts. Waneta Hoyt confessed to and was convicted of the murders, upending the research based on the prolonged sleep apnea theory, millions of dollars of NIH-funded research, and the careers of several research scientists. Although nurses and other pediatricians questioned Waneta’s maternal attachment and even suggested that the deaths were not natural, their voices went unheard. Politicians like Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan jumped onto a bandwagon led by parents angry that the federal government had not done more to find out why their babies had died without explanation. National conferences on SIDS were held where theories were expounded based on published cases starring the “H” children. And commercial interests entered the stage as apnea monitors, which had never been used at home, became an unproven (and lucrative) recommendation for parents to prevent SIDS.  

In addition to Waneta and Tim Hoyt and their five children (who ranged in age from 1 to 28 months) who were murdered between 1965-1971,  there is a cast of characters out of a Hollywood script. The leading player is Alfred Steinschneider, MD, PhD, a pediatrician and researcher at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. Others include Drs. Michael Baden, Milton Halpern, Janice Ophoven and Marie Valdes-Dapena. Pediatric luminaries such as Abe Bergman, Jerold Lucey, Frank Oski, and even T. Berry Brazelton played roles.

The book takes us through the story using court and medical records, interviews, television and audio recordings, conference notes, publications and other publically available information, some of which the authors painstakingly retrieved and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. We hear the sad story of Waneta and Tim, from high school sweethearts to life partners in rural poverty, and of their family members who tried to help but were often rebuffed. The story takes us to early pregnancy and early death, with inadequate evaluations, lack of autopsies or of more than cursory investigation, and wishes to not upset the Hoyts or their community with insinuations of murder. We hear about the years after the deaths, with the Hoyts’ attempts at adoption, mental health treatment and eventually their confession to heinous acts. We also hear about Steinschneider’s rise, fall and eventual ostracism by the medical community.

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