Legal Case Study: A Caregiver is Vindicated


On January 3, 1996, 5-month old baby Matthew Hendrickson died of what appeared to be “shaken baby syndrome.” Donna Gist, a 34-year old home healthcare nurse’s aide, provided overnight care for the baby in the home of Scott and Kathleen Hendrickson. A year after the baby’s death, Gist was charged with first-degree murder. A DuPage County jury convicted Gist of fatally injuring the infant in her care and she received a life sentence, later reduced to 50 years. Then in 2000, following an extensive appeals process, state appellate judges completely reversed the jury’s verdict. Accordingly, Gist was freed and would not face a retrial.


The Evidence

There was little doubt that Baby Hendrickson died from injuries related to a severe shaking. An autopsy revealed extensive bruising, abrasions and cranial bleeding. Two doctors brought in by the prosecution provided medical testimony that the child’s injuries were inflicted no more than an hour before his death, at which time the Hendricksons were sleeping, and the child was in Gist’s care. This circumstantial evidence was the basis for her conviction.

Thomas Breen and Todd Pugh, of Breen & Pugh Law, were the team who defended Donna Gist. They brought in medical experts of their own who disputed the statements presented by the prosecution. They presented testimony from two physicians, asserting that the injuries could have in fact been inflicted as many as 24 hours earlier, before Gist had arrived at the Hendrickson home at 11 p.m. Based on this evidence, the child’s parents or some other individual could very well have caused the fatal injuries. Despite this conflicting evidence, the jury convicted.


The Appeal

Throughout the entire ordeal, Gist maintained her innocence. “I never caused the death of Matthew Hendrickson.”

Attorney Todd Pugh said he was “absolutely certain” of Gist’s innocence from the beginning. Her husband, family and friends, as well as fellow parishioners from her church, avowed that Gist was incapable of committing such a crime.

During pretrial preparation for the case, Breen and Pugh had attempted to investigate the mental health of Cathleen Hendrickson, the baby’s mother. That investigation had been restricted by the judge in the case, which was a significant setback for the defense and presented one of the main bases for her appeal.

Following her conviction, Breen & Pugh Law proceeded to pursue Donna Gist’s appeal free of charge. They based the appeal on three arguments:

  1. Insufficient and purely circumstantial evidence.
  2. Judicial error by disallowing testimony related to the mental health of the mother.
  3. Judicial error in limiting the jury to a conviction for murder, without the option of choosing involuntary manslaughter.

In May of 2000, the efforts by the legal team at Breen & Pugh proved successful when the Illinois State Appellate Court reversed Gist’s 1997 conviction. The court ruled that there was no specific evidence linking her to the injuries, and multiple individuals had the opportunity to cause the fatal injuries. Donna Gist was freed from Dwight Correctional Center, and would not be retried for the crime.

“This case demonstrates the importance of setting a proper foundation
at trial, not just to win the trial, but to make sure that you are setting
the appropriate record,” Pugh says.