On March 21, 2004, day-care provider Melonie Ware was babysitting 9-month-old Jaden Paige at her home in Decatur, Georgia. When Jaden became unresponsive, Ware called for help. The infant was taken to the hospital and died there. Ware was brought in for questioning and arrested that night.
In 2005, Ware was tried for Jaden’s murder. DeKalb County Medical Examiner Gerald Gowitt testified that in conducting the autopsy, he found bruising on the scalp, bleeding in the brain and eyes, and a leg fracture. Though Jaden had a history of sickle cell disease, Dr. Gowitt said there was no sign of the signature crescent-shaped cells. He claimed Jaden’s death was a clear case of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a term said to describe a situation in which an infant is violently shaken, causing severe and potentially deadly brain injury. SBS supposedly involves a tell-tale “triad” of symptoms – brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging and retinal hemorrhaging – and until recently, it was believed that no other injuries or pathologies could cause these three symptoms to occur at the same time. It was also believed that a victim of SBS became unresponsive immediately, meaning that the last person to have physical care of the baby was very likely to have caused the injuries.
In November 2005, Ware was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison.
A year later, Ware’s conviction was vacated because she had received ineffective legal representation at her trial, and she was released pending a re-trial. At the re-trial in 2009, defense experts testified that the infant’s death had nothing to do with shaking, and that he had actually died from complications of sickle cell anemia, including infection and blood-clotting problems that caused the internal bleeding. They showed that slides taken during the autopsy were filled with sickle cells, and testified that bruises on the child's scalp and his leg injury likely resulted from hospital procedures initiated to try to save Paige. Ware was acquitted and released.
Ware is one of a growing number of people who have been exonerated in cases where prosecutors claimed an infant was shaken to death. Recent medical research has cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Many experts have argued that it is physically impossible for such severe brain damage to be caused by shaking alone, without visible injuries to the skull or spine. There is also increasing evidence that other injuries can produce the diagnostic “triad” of symptoms that is said to prove SBS, and mounting evidence that an infant who is suffering from these symptoms would not necessarily become unresponsive right away.
- Alexandra Gross