Doubts Remain After a Decade in Prison

Jan 24, 2018

Virginia begins this year with about 30,000 citizens behind bars.  Experts say 4 to 7 percent were wrongfully convicted, but state law makes it nearly impossible to get a new trial.  One of those who maintains her innocence is Trudy Munoz, a legal immigrant from Peru.

Trudy Munoz with her daughters

Trudy Munoz was a travel agent – her husband a lawyer – when they decided to leave their home in Lima for a new life in the States. 

“Just because we have a daughter five years old, and we want something better for her,” she explains.

They settled in Northern Virginia and were especially excited about libraries, because her daughter loved books, and Peru doesn't have public libraries.

When Munoz got pregnant with her second child, she decided to start a daycare center where she could earn some money and still spend time with her kids.  She took a special course, learned first aid and got certified to care for children of all kinds.

“I took kids with autism.  I worked with a little girl she had just one arm, and I never had any kind of problem,” Munoz recalls.

Five years after she opened her home, Munoz began caring for Noah Whitmer, who was four months old.

“Noah was a happy baby.  He just wanted to eat and sleep and to play a little bit -- a normal baby,” she says. 

But one week, she noticed he was fussy, didn’t take his bottle well, and wasn’t napping as usual.  Noah’s mother also saw the change, but neither woman could explain it. The baby had no rash or other visible source of discomfort, but Munoz felt sure something was wrong.

Then, as she tried to feed him, Munoz says Noah’s body tensed and he stopped breathing. She called paramedics and did CPR until they arrived.  At the hospital, doctors did a CT scan that showed his brain was swelling, there was blood behind his eyes and beneath his skull – three symptoms that in 2009 doctors thought were likely caused by shaking a baby.

Munoz insists she didn’t do that. There were no marks on Noah’s body – no bruises and no injuries to the neck.  Even now, she wonders what happened to him.

Today, doctors say it could have been a stroke, an infection, a clotting disorder that caused the bleeding, or it might have been an injury sustained about a week earlier. A note appeared on Noah Whitmer’s chart when he was admitted to intensive care indicating a plaque of some kind had fallen on his head, but that information never came out in court.  Munoz was convicted and sentenced to a decade behind bars.

“That is how many years I need to be in prison for something that I never did," Munoz says.  Speaking softly, in heavily-accentend English she concludes, "That is a terrible thing, because they destroyed my life, my daughter’s life, and people who care about me.”

During her time in prison, scientists began to doubt the conventional wisdom about shaken baby syndrome – a Wisconsin court noting fierce disagreement in the medical community.  A new study showed shaking alone could not cause severe brain injury, and a pediatrician from Children’s Hospital in Boston said he saw a blood clot when he reviewed Noah’s scan. He and other experts now say a period of fussiness and disruption might be a sign of gradual deterioration from something that occurred weeks or months earlier, and if Munoz were tried today, she might well be acquitted, but under Virginia law defendants have just 21 days to introduce new evidence after conviction.  Unless there is DNA -- positively proving innocence -- people like Trudy Munoz don’t get a second chance.  While she was locked up, her husband divorced her and remarried.  Her daughters grew up, and when she’s released in just under a year, she will have a felony on her record and be deported without her kids. 

“They love this country.  Their life is here," she says, but "the worst part is after all these years I am apart from my daughters, and after all these years I need to go back to Peru alone.”

Governor Terry McAuliffe took no action on this case, so her only hope rests with the newly elected governor, Ralph Northam. The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia is asking him to pardon Munoz, allowing her to begin a new life here.