On March 21, 2004, 30-year-old day-care provider Melonie Ware was babysitting nine-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 and charged with murder.
In 2005, Ware went to trial in DeKalb County Circuit Court. 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).
Shaken Baby Syndrome, later re-christened Abusive Head Trauma, was first described in 1971. SBS was said to occur an infant is shaken so hard that the brain rotates inside the skull, causing severe and potentially deadly brain injury, often with no external signs of harm.
SBS was said to involve a telltale “triad” of symptoms—brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging and retinal hemorrhaging—which, when present in an infant, indicate that the child has been violently shaken. According to accepted medical wisdom at the time, no other injuries or pathologies could cause these three symptoms to occur simultaneously, and—because it was believed that a victim of SBS became unresponsive immediately—the last person to have physical care of the baby must have caused the injuries. Research has since shown that these symptoms can be caused by other traumas such as short falls, or by a variety of physiological conditions, and that the symptoms might not appear until hours, days or even weeks later.
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 Jaden. Ware was acquitted and released.
Ware is one of a number of people who have been exonerated in cases where prosecutors claimed an infant was shaken to death.
- Alexandra Gross