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How Randy Papetti has freed innocent parents

Published in 2019 Southwest Super Lawyers magazine

In 1998, four years after joining Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie in Phoenix, Randy Papetti was walking down the hallway when a frustrated criminal defense colleague approached him. He was repping a man serving 35-to-life after being convicted of killing an infant due to a medical diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome, and asked Papetti to help write the brief. Despite Papetti’s lack of experience with the subject matter—“I knew nothing about it, so it was an enormous learning curve,” he says—he eventually took the reins on the case, immersed himself in the research and concluded that there were problems with the science behind SBS. 

Physicians, he says, sometimes diagnose SBS based on unreliable findings: “For decades, physicians believed certain findings if the child had been shaken or otherwise subject to severe trauma, when we now know that in many instances those same findings can be caused naturally or from accidental trauma.”

Ultimately, the county prosecutor announced that the defendant would be retried. Papetti, a commercial litigator who had been involved in several pro bono cases since joining the firm, had never handled a first-degree murder trial. But, he says, “I believed in his innocence and believed that the theories that were being used to convict him were questionable.” The jury agreed, voting 9-3 to acquit, and the man later pled guilty to a reckless-based offense for leaving the child alone in a high chair. Papetti secured his client’s release after the man had served nine years.

That wasn’t the end. The victory prompted other attorneys to contact Papetti, now 51, for help with their SBS cases. He helped overturn the wrongful conviction of a father who had served 10 years in prison for allegedly murdering his son, winning a post-conviction release in 2012 at the request of the Arizona Justice Project.

In 2014, Papetti got a call from Eric Volz, an American wrongfully convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend in Nicaragua in 2006. After his exoneration in 2007, Volz launched a career assisting others wrongfully accused in foreign courts. Volz had heard about Papetti’s work on SBS cases and wanted to know: Would he help represent a man and woman arrested for allegedly starving their 9-year-old daughter to death in Qatar? 

Matthew and Grace Huang, Chinese Americans from California, had adopted three children from Africa, one of whom suffered from a chronic eating disorder; occasionally, she wouldn’t eat for days at a time. Huang, an engineer, had transferred with his family to Qatar for two years to work on an infrastructure project. 

One day, the Huangs found the girl unconscious in her room. She died at the hospital, and the parents were charged with murder. “The Qatari people had concluded that they were probably going to harvest her organs,” Papetti recalls. “[They believed that] no one would adopt children of a different race, let alone African children.”

At the end of the trial—during which Papetti supported the Qatari lawyer trying the case—the judge ordered the defendants to serve three years in prison, a much lesser sentence than the potential death penalty they’d previously faced. With Papetti still on board for the appeal, the appellate court found insufficient evidence and ordered the parents released. The ruling, he says, was unprecedented.

“No one could recall a comparable outcome in Qatar,” he says. “Defendants simply don’t win cases that the prosecution has committed to trying, let alone in something like this.”

More recently, Papetti has literally written the book on SBS. Published in 2018, The Forensic Unreliability of the Shaken Baby Syndrome addresses the medical, scientific and legal issues surrounding the diagnosis. “I get a request almost every day from people needing help,” he says.

Trying pro bono cases “gave me tons of trial and courtroom experience I never would’ve gotten,” Papetti says. “I do a fair amount of IP litigation. I’m not intimidated by that anymore because of what I had to go through with the pro bono stuff.”

Pro Bono Opportunities in Arizona

According to a recent ABA survey, more than 25 percent of Arizona attorneys did 50 or more hours of pro bono work in 2016. If you’re looking to increase your pro bono hours this year, the following organizations may have opportunities available.

Volunteer Lawyers Program of Arizona:
Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education:
State Bar Public Service Center:
Wills for Heroes:

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