The Death of Innocents: A True Story of Murder, Medicine, and High-Stakes Science

Firstman, RichardTalan, Jamie

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Longform journalism

Annotated by:
Palusci, Vincent
  • Date of entry: Jul-14-2022


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.


It has been said that while science is objective and self-correcting, scientists are not. This story reads like a crime novel; if not true, it would be almost unbelievable in its treatment of professional science and the research enterprise in the United States, with gullible grant administration, inadequate peer review, and researcher hubris and closed-mindedness. But the story is true and reflects that scientists are often not objective and can be self-aggrandizing, self-centered and narrowly focused on grant money and personal fame. Firstman and Talen systematically chronicle Steinschneider’s career starting at the clinical research center at Upstate, with his first presenting and then publishing research based on omission, misinterpretation, over-interpretation, and then falsification of research findings to garner funding for research as well as commercial gain. Moreover, they repeatedly show his inability to consider homicide as a cause for recurrent infant deaths. Others across the world were recognizing and studying other causes and were developing better theories that took into account maternal mental health and social factors, with the contribution of what we now call social determinants of health, in addition to epidemiologic studies of fatal child abuse, risk reduction and prevention. It would take more than 40 years in the United States to have the subspecialty of Child Abuse Pediatrics recognized after a 1962 landmark paper by C. Henry Kempe. And the public (and many physicians) still doesn’t want to believe that parents can harm their own children.

In addition to the number of murdered children, another sad part of the story has to do with the effects of poor science and inadequate oversight and peer review. There was lack of recognition of her Waneta Hoyt’s mental illness and delay in her treatment. Additional research was based on Steinschneider’s misleading theories. False hope was created for parents and millions of dollars were directed away from other causes or better research into SIDS. How many children would erroneously be labelled as having ‘non-obstructive’ sleep apnea? How much needless anxiety (and worse) would be caused by inaccurate and unnecessary apnea monitors? How many thousands of infants’ deaths could be prevented with earlier implementation of something as simple as placing babies on their backs for sleep (cutting the SIDS rates in half during the 1990s). The Death of Innocents: A True Story of Murder, Medicine, and High-Stakes Science is essential reading for those wanting to learn about the history of SIDS, apparent life-threatening events, fatal child abuse, postpartum depression, and what was called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. It also lays bare what can go wrong and how we, as physicians and scientists, need to remain objective and skeptical as we search for the causes of illness and treatments for suffering and disease.


Bantam Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count