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Clarence Jones III

Other Shaken Baby Syndrome exonerations
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On August 31, 1998, Collin Jones, a 72-day-old infant, was pronounced dead at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. His father, 36-year-old Clarence Jones III was charged with first-degree murder and child abuse after physicians concluded the child was a victim of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).

SBS was a term coined to describe a condition first articulated in 1971. SBS is said to arise when an infant is shaken so hard that the brain rotates inside the skull, causing severe and potentially deadly brain injury, but often without any external signs of harm. SBS is said to involve a tell-tale “triad” of symptoms—brain swelling, brain hemorrhaging, and retinal hemorrhaging. When present in an infant who has no outward signs of abuse, the triad of symptoms is interpreted by many physicians, child abuse investigators and police to indicate that the child has been violently shaken. Because Collin began choking while in Jones’s care, Jones was believed to have caused the baby’s death.

On March 1, 1999, Jones went to trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court. He chose to have the case heard by Judge John G. Turnbull II without a jury.

According to testimony, Collin was born on June 21, 1998. His pediatrician, Dr. Shari Reichenberg, testified that he had several medical complications due to a traumatic vaginal delivery. Collin spent six days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit because “he had swallowed some meconium,” which is newborn stool, and had respiratory difficulties. He also had thrombocytopenia, a blood clotting disorder causing a low platelet count.

On July 14, 1998, Collin was brought to Dr. Reichenberg’s office after “spit[ting] up some blood and not eating” the night before. When he appeared “pale and clammy and breathing rapidly,” Dr. Reichenberg ordered a chest x-ray. Because he was still “breathing very rapidly and was pale,” when he returned from the x-ray, she sent him to the emergency room at Sinai Hospital. Based on the x-ray scans, which showed bacteria infiltrates or consolidation, Dr. Reichenberg diagnosed Collin with pneumonia. When he did not respond within the normal time range to a course of IV antibiotics and his respiratory rate had increased, he was transferred to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. He was discharged on July 19, 1998.

On August 25, 1998, Jones was caring for Collin. He had fed Collin a bottle of formula and the boy went to sleep. Later, Jones said he heard “sputtering” and saw formula coming from Collin’s nose and mouth. He took the baby to the emergency room at Sinai.

Upon admission, Collin was in respiratory distress with an irregular heartbeat. Dr. Bernard Zunkeler, a neurosurgeon, noted at 11:30 p.m. that Collin had “no external signs of trauma” and that he had hemorrhages that “may be 7-14 days old or may reflect low hematocrit of the blood.” Hematocrit is a test that measures how much of a person’s blood is made up of red blood cells. Dr. Zunkeler concluded that “the only possible cause [was] forceful ‘abuse.’”

On August 26, 1998, Baltimore police detectives were summoned to Sinai Hospital. There, Dr. Aaron Zuckerberg, an expert in pediatric critical care, said that the child appeared to have been shaken. Detectives Phillip Marll and James Tincher interviewed Jones and his wife, Jennifer Lee Crocker, separately at their apartment.

Jones and his wife then agreed to accompany the detectives to the police station. There, both gave statements denying harming Collin. Asked why they left the hospital after being informed of the boy’s condition, Jones said, “We left the hospital at about 3:30 a.m. because we couldn’t bear it anymore. She was falling apart and so was I. We needed to go home and get some rest.”

Jones said he “could not believe it” when the physicians told him the baby had head trauma. Jones said Jennifer was “an excellent mom. She has a very good heart. She would never do anything to harm Collin.” Jones confirmed that after Jennifer went to work at 2 p.m., he was the sole person in their home with Collin.

Detective Marll testified that Jones became upset with the questioning, saying, “it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen.” Marll said, “At this time, I told him, ‘It did happen. All you have to do is go to the hospital and see him lying there. The doctors aren’t lying. They aren’t making this up. Your son has been shaken.’”

Marll said Jones “became loud and kept repeating, ‘It didn’t happen. I didn’t hurt him. No one hurt him. I didn’t drop him.’” Marll quoted Jones as saying that on the way to the hospital, he “slightly shook Collin since he was having difficulty breathing.”

Marll testified, “And he showed us how he shook him, barely moving his hand back and forth.” Marll said, “He knew that wasn’t enough to hurt Collin.”

Meanwhile, that same day, Dr. Timothy Polk, an ophthalmology consultant, examined Collin and told the detectives that he found “widespread hemorrhaging of both retinas.” Polk told the detectives that “this is virtually 99 percent diagnostic of a shaken baby when accompanied with brain swelling.”

Collin’s condition deteriorated rapidly. He showed increased brain tissue damage and swelling from lack of oxygen. He was pronounced dead on August 31 and Jones was charged with killing him.

The State presented medical expert witnesses who testified to “a reasonable degree of medical certainty” that the cause of Collin’s death was violent shaking. They were:

--Dr. Dennis Chute, a pathologist in the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, performed the autopsy. He testified that SBS is “a constellation of findings that’s the result of violently shaking an infant . . . swelling of the brain, bleeding on the open surface of the brain near the membranes that cover the brain, and bleeding into the retinas of the eyes.” He identified Collin’s cause of death as Shaken Baby Syndrome. He said there were no external injuries or abnormalities to Collin’s neck or spinal cord. He said there was bleeding on both sides of Collin’s brain. He said the hemorrhages were about a week old.

--Dr. Zuckerberg testified that the cause of Collin’s injuries and death “was [the] complete cessation of blood flow to his brain and he was shaken.” Zuckerberg testified that retinal hemorrhage “defines child abuse, defines severe acceleration/deceleration shaking.”

--Dr. Polk testified that he could “imagine no possible cause other than violent shaking to cause the baby’s injuries. He said that the retinal hemorrhages were the most severe he had ever seen.

--Dr. Allen Walker, a pediatric critical care consultant, testified that “Collin’s injuries were the result of shaking, violent shaking, resulting primarily in brain injury which caused his death.”

--Dr. John Smialek testified, “This child died of brain swelling and hemorrhage within the child’s head that was a result of severe shaking.”

The physicians testified that they considered, but rejected, disease as a cause for Collin’s death. Dr. Zuckerberg found no evidence of septicemia because septicemia shows “end organ effects” like renal damage and cardiac and pulmonary dysfunction. Dr. Polk concluded from Collin’s normal platelet count when he arrived at the emergency room that Collin did not have a clotting disorder. And Dr. Polk also discounted septicemia because, while it could cause retinal hemorrhages, they are “moderate and localized, exclusive to the retina” and would not account for Collin’s other eye injuries.

Dr. Rudiger Breitnecker, a forensic pathologist testified for the defense. He said that at first, “I thought it was Shaken Baby Syndrome, and that’s the end of it.”

“But looking over the history and studying the medical records, there are so many other medical problems that the child had, that I began to wonder if I can really separate the medical problems from the pure traumatic part. And I don’t think I can.”

Dr. Breitnecker pointed to evidence that he said indicated that the bleeding in Collin’s eyes had been going on for weeks. He opined that Collin was sick and that the bacteria circulating in his bloodstream caused septicemia.

He also testified regarding the conclusion of Dr. Chute, who conducted the autopsy on Collin, that the death was a homicide. Dr. Breitnecker said, “I suspect that had I known – which I don’t know if they did at the time of autopsy—had I known the whole history, I probably would have made it an undetermined matter. Because I abhor the thought of unjust accusation. And I have a reasonable doubt that this is not a homicide.”

On March 4, 1999, Judge Turnbull convicted Jones of second-degree murder and child abuse. “Obviously this case revolves itself on expert testimony,” the judge declared. “I was very impressed with Dr. Polk. He testified that this was the most severe case that he has ever seen or is aware of, and that it was his opinion that the cause of the injury was violent shaking, no other cause. And I wrote those comments down, because he said them with a great deal of significance…. Suffice it to say that after listening to all of the testimony therein, the Court finds that this was a brutal shaking of a helpless young individual who was barely nine weeks old.”

Judge Turnbull said he was “convinced beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty” that Jones was guilty of second-degree murder and child abuse. The judge noted that there was no evidence that Collin had any trauma prior to the day he spent in Jones’s care and was brought to the hospital.

Jones was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In 2000, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland denied Jones’s appeal. Jones later filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which was denied in 2008.

In December 2016, Jones filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence. He was represented by Frances Walters, an attorney at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, as well as attorney Donald P. Salzman from the law firm of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP, and attorneys Caitlin M. Kasmar, Amanda R. Lawrence, Daniel Cheriyan, and Ian J. Acker from the law firm of Buckley LLP.

The 516-page petition, including exhibits, was based on the shifting of evidence relating to SBS. The petition said that since Jones’s conviction, evidence had emerged showing that the triad of symptoms that were believed to be indicative of SBS—retinal hemorrhaging, cranial bleeding and swelling of the brain—could be the result of causes other than shaking. The petition noted that evidence since had shown that:

--Injuries and conditions associated with SBS “can be and are caused by unintentional medical conditions, including disease, infection, toxins, strokes, and respiratory arrest.”

--There are subdural hemorrhages with accidental causes, such as a fall, “contrary to the testimony of the State’s expert witnesses at trial.”

--There are “numerous causes of swelling of the brain” and that such swelling—as it was in Collin’s case—is frequently caused by lack of oxygen and blood flow to the brain instead of the tearing of tissue and veins associated with violent shaking.

--Retinal hemorrhages and related eye findings “have multiple causes and are not exclusively diagnostic of shaking, contrary to the testimony of the State’s expert witnesses at trial.”

On October 11, 2017, Jones was released from prison on parole.

In December 2018, Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Colleen Cavanaugh held a seven-day hearing. Jones’s legal team presented evidence from six experts: Dr. Janice Ophoven (forensic pathology), Dr. Michael Laposata (clinical pathology/hematology), Dr. Patrick Lantz (forensic pathology), Dr. Jerome Klein (pediatric infectious disease), Dr. Chris Van Ee (biomechanical-engineering); and Dr. Daniel Sahlein (neurosurgery/neuroradiology).

They testified about new SBS-related evidence developed since 2001, including the application of evidence-based science to the SBS hypothesis, the evolution in the medical understanding of SBS, and advances in biomechanical research; and natural causes for Collin’s symptoms.

Essentially, their testimony indicated that findings by physicians at the time of Collin’s death relating to the baby’s eyes, brain and lungs were “older than two weeks and some could date back to birth.”

The prosecution called two witnesses, Dr. Michelle Chudow, an expert in pediatrics and child abuse, and Dr. Rudolph Castellani, an expert in neuropathology. Dr. Chudow, who did not believe a controversy existed regarding SBS, testified that the “sum totality of [Collin’s] findings [could] point to nothing other than abusive head trauma.”

Dr. Castellani testified that retinal hemorrhaging, one of the key symptoms said to be evidence of SBS, is less common in accidental trauma, and much less common and less severe in natural disease processes. While he acknowledged there were other causes for retinal bleeding, he said he had never seen or heard of such other causes that were plausible explanations for the extent and severity of Collin’s ocular hemorrhage.

On February 14, 2019, Judge Cavanaugh denied the petition for a writ of actual innocence. The judge ruled that except for one narrow area involving brain swelling, the defense team had not presented new evidence, which was required as a basis for granting such a petition. The judge said the evidence presented did not create a substantial or significant possibility of an acquittal if it were presented at a retrial. Judge Callahan ruled that what the defense called “new evidence” had in fact been discussed at Jones’s trial.

Jones’s legal team appealed. Their appeal was supported by three amicus briefs filed by an extensive array of current and retired physicians and scientists from various areas of expertise, retired federal judges, as well as one filed on behalf of the Innocence Network, representing 68 innocence projects in the United States and throughout the world, and the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences. The briefs laid out in excruciating detail how the evidence supported Jones’s defense.

On December 20, 2020, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland overturned Judge Cavanaugh’s ruling.

“We do not disagree that the treating physicians and expert witnesses engaged in a differential diagnosis process that considered Collin’s medical history in 1999 that was consistent with the medical literature of that time,” the court said. “Since then, however, medical research has identified a number of other natural causes of retinal hemorrhages and associated eye findings…Although the natural conditions themselves are not new, their causative relationship with Collin’s eye findings is.”

“The circuit court’s finding that ‘the majority of [Mr. Jones’s] allegedly newly discovered evidence was discussed at his 1999 trial’ ignores the stated conclusions of the State’s key experts that only SBS could explain the constellation in Collin,” the appeals court ruled.

“In sum, Mr. Jones presented newly discovered evidence that was not discovered until after his conviction,” the appeals court declared. “Since 1999, scientific and medical literature has identified other natural causes of retinal hemorrhages and other eye findings as seen in Collin. Evidence that changes the 1999 understanding of those medical conditions in relation to the injuries and conditions associated with SBS qualifies as newly discovered.”

The prosecution filed a motion asking the Special Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling. On February 2, 2021, that motion was denied. “We are persuaded that, if a factfinder, be it a jury or judge, would hear the competing professional medical opinions, there is a substantial or significant possibility of a different result,” the court declared.

The appeals court remanded the case back to Circuit Court Judge Cavanaugh. On June 25, 2021, Judge Cavanaugh held a hearing to determine the next steps in the case. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge ruled: “Granting a new trial in this case would not serve the interests of justice.” The case was dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/8/2021
Last Updated: 9/8/2021
State:Maryland
County:Baltimore
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Child Abuse
Reported Crime Date:1998
Convicted:1999
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:30 years
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:36
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No