Book: The Death of Innocents (Richard Firstman)

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The Death of Innocents

Author: Richard Firstman, Jamie Talan
Publisher: Bantam Books

Unraveling a 25-year tale of multiple murder and medical deception, The Death of Innocents is a work of first-rate journalism told with the compelling narrative drive of a mystery novel.

On July 28, 1971, a two-and-a-half-month-old baby named Noah Hoyt died in his trailer home in a rural hamlet of upstate New York. He was the fifth child of Waneta and Tim Hoyt to die suddenly in the space of seven years. People certainly talked, but Waneta spoke vaguely of ‘crib death,’ and over time the talk faded.

Nearly two decades later a district attorney in Syracuse, New York, was alerted to a landmark paper in the literature on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome—SIDS—that had been published in a prestigious medical journal back in 1972. Written by a prominent researcher at a Syracuse medical center, the article described a family in which five children had died suddenly without explanation. The D.A. was convinced that something about this account was very wrong. An intensive quest by a team of investigators came to a climax in the spring of 1995, in a dramatic multiple-murder trial that made headlines nationwide.

But this book is not only a vivid account of infanticide revealed; it is also a riveting medical detective story. That journal article had legitimized the deaths of the last two babies by theorizing a cause for the mystery of SIDS, suggesting it could be predicted and prevented, and fostering the presumption that SIDS runs in families. More than two decades of multimillion-dollar studies have failed to confirm any of these widely accepted premises.

How all this happened—could have happened—is a compelling story of high-stakes medical research in action.


A rule of thumb in forensics: one dead baby is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome(SIDS); two dead babies is suspicious; three dead babies is murder. The Death of Innocents starts off a bit slow, but as soon as a new district attorney decides to pursue an old case of five siblings whose deaths were attributed to SIDS, the story kicks into high gear. There are two villains: the quietly furious mother who admitted to smothering her children—one of whom was 2 years old, and kicked and flailed as he died—and the arrogant medical researcher who was so eager to make a name for himself that he was willfully blind to the warnings of danger. Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan, a husband-wife team, write about abuse of the scientific method as suspensefully as they write about parental abuse of babies. The Death of Innocents was named a 1997 Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. The NYT writes, The Death of Innocents “…seamlessly weaves the tales of the earlier and later murder cases, separated by two decades, with the complicated scientific and social issues, the many disparate personalities, documents, interviews and dramatic moments. The book is paced like a thriller, and it will be read like one.”

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