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Day Care Worker Convicted in 'Shaken Baby' Death to Be Released

New evidence uncovered in the case of Jennifer Del Prete, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the 2003 death of 14-month-old Isabella Zielinski.

Jennifer Del Prete could be released as she appeals her murder conviction. Credit: Illinois Department of Corrections
Jennifer Del Prete could be released as she appeals her murder conviction. Credit: Illinois Department of Corrections
A former home day care worker convicted of shaking an infant to death will be released from prison after new evidence came to light that could point to her innocence.

In 2005, Jennifer Del Prete, now 43, was sentenced to the minimum 20 years for the death of 14-month-old Isabella Zielinski. Del Prete was convicted of shaking Isabella while caring for her in December 2002 at a day care center in Romeoville. The infant, who suffered severe brain damage, died 10 months later.

In what he called a "rare ruling," U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly on Tuesday ruled that Del Prete may be released after posting bond, while the courts address her claims of innocence.

Kennelly's ruling is due in part to evidence discovered by Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project. Northwestern undergraduate students, working with Medill Justice Project director Alec Klein, discovered a 2003 letter written by a police detective that points to Del Prete's innocence. 

In the letter, the detective wrote that the pathologist who performed the infant's autopsy had significant doubts that Del Prete had violently shaken the infant, according to a press release from Northwestern.

Klein, professor of journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, responded to the ruling in a press release Wednesday.

“I’m humbled by the tremendous journalism of our students and their dogged pursuit of the truth,” Klein said. "Our students have the capacity to do life-changing journalism.”

The judge cited the detective's letter in his decision on Tuesday.

In January, Kennelly issued a 97-page ruling saying that new evidence in the case called into question the controversial science behind "shaken baby" syndrome that led to Del Prete's conviction.

In the opinion, Kennelly asked whether any reasonable juror would have convicted Del Prete of first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt, writing, "The answer to that question is a resounding no."

Del Prete, who has continued to proclaim her innocence, was not due to be released on parole until 2025. She is currently in custody at Logan Correctional Center, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The judge's ruling means that Del Prete can be released as she addresses her claims of innocence through the appeals process in the state courts. After that, she would be able to can return to federal court to resume her habeas corpus petition, a legal action brought by a prisoner against what she considers wrongful imprisonment. 

The legal proceedings could take years, according to a release from Northwestern.

The amount and terms of Del Prete's bond had not been set as of Tuesday. A status hearing was set for April 30.

Del Prete's 24-year-old daughter — who was a teenager when her mother went to prison — called the judge's decision "a real dream come true" in a text message to the Medill Justice Project.

“I’m completely ecstatic," Tia Del Prete texted. "I’ve been wishing every chance I got for this for the last nine years and my wish is finally coming true.”

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