December 21, 2020

In its unpublished opinion dated December 1, 2020, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland (“Maryland Appellate Court”) acknowledged scientific and medical literature published since a man’s conviction in 1999 of the Shaken Baby Syndrome killing of his infant son to support granting him relief.

The Shaken Baby Syndrome hypothesis is based on an infant presenting with three medical findings, sometimes referred to as the “triad” or “constellation”: (1) subdural hematoma, (2) retinal hemorrhaging, and (3) cerebral edema (brain swelling) or encephalopathy.

In 1999, after a bench trial in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County, appellant Clarence Jones was convicted of second-degree murder and child abuse of his infant son, Collin Jones, based on a diagnosis of Shaken Baby Syndrome (“SBS”). He was sentenced to thirty years of incarceration for second-degree murder and a concurrent fifteen years for child abuse.

In 2016, Mr. Jones filed a Petition for Writ of Actual Innocence. Following a seven-day hearing, the circuit court denied relief. Mr. Jones filed a timely appeal, presenting two questions for review:

l. Did the circuit court err in ruling that most of Mr. Jones’s evidence was not “newly discovered” as defined in § 8-301 of the Criminal Procedure Article (“CP”)?

2. Did the court err in ruling that there is no substantial or significant possibility of a different result at trial had the trier of fact heard all of Mr. Jones’s newly discovered evidence?

The Maryland Appellate Court held: “In sum, Mr. Jones presented newly discovered evidence that was not discovered until after his conviction. 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 current research shows that (i) subdural hematoma, (ii) retinal hemorrhage, and (iii) cerebral edema are attributable to a wide variety of both natural and accidental causes. Because Collin’s medical conditions were quickly dismissed as potential causes of the constellation of symptoms that Collin presented, such evidence would be especially important when there is a history of illness, hospitalization, and an absence of external injuries.”

“We recognize, as did the courts in Sissoko and Edmunds, that the competing medical opinions regarding SBS does not completely dispel the old evidence and that Mr. Jones’s experts are in the minority. But the current controversy or debate within the scientific community and “the new studies [are] significantly more critical” of the SBS hypothesis than previous studies. … 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. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.”

Source Clarence Jones, III v. State of Maryland, No. 0087 September Term, 2019.

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