Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

25 years after ‘shaken baby’ conviction, Baltimore County man once again tries to prove his innocence

He's already convinced one court that he is not guilty of the charges

Madeleine O'Neill//April 2, 2023

25 years after ‘shaken baby’ conviction, Baltimore County man once again tries to prove his innocence

He's already convinced one court that he is not guilty of the charges

By Madeleine O'Neill

//April 2, 2023

Clarence Jones discusses his case during an interview at the office of Brown Goldstein & Levy in Baltimore. (Madeleine O’Neill/The Daily Record)

Clarence Jones walked into Sinai Hospital four minutes too late.

His infant son, Collin, was already gone. Doctors took Collin Jones off life support and pronounced him dead at 6:02 p.m. on that hot Baltimore evening in August 1998.

Jones arrived with his wife at 6:06, ready to see his son for the first time in days. The couple was whisked to the pediatric intensive care unit and given 20 minutes to sit with their baby boy.

UPDATE: In first-ever testimony, Baltimore County father asserts innocence in 1998 ‘shaken baby’ case

Jones rocked Collin’s lifeless body in a fog, barely understanding that his son was dead. Jones hadn’t known what was coming when he finally got permission to see Collin that evening.

Jones’ wife wept beside him as he held their baby. He’s gone, Jones remembers hearing, over and over. His head felt stuck in twilight.

Two police officers stood nearby, watching closely to see if the couple seemed upset enough about the death of their son. Jones did not appear to cry, they noted.

The officers would charge him with murder that evening.

They believed that six days earlier, Jones – a 6-foot-tall, 240-pound body builder and security guard – picked up Collin and shook him so hard that blood seeped into his eyes and the sliver of space between his brain and his skull. Doctors said the force was so violent that Collin lost consciousness almost immediately and never woke up.

When 20 minutes had passed, the officers moved in to arrest Jones, then 35. His wife screamed as police led him away down the hospital hallway.

It would be more than 20 years before Jones successfully convinced a court of law that he was not guilty of murdering his son – decades in which the medical and legal certainty about the phenomenon known as “shaken baby syndrome” would begin to shift and a growing number of parents and caretakers would be exonerated in what were once considered clear-cut cases.

This week, Jones will try to prove his innocence again, this time in an austere administrative building in Hunt Valley, where he will seek compensation for the 18 years he spent in prison after Collin’s death.

“You’ve got to fight. You’ve got to clear your name, you know?” Jones told The Daily Record. “Or you’ll never be nothing.”


Here’s what happened on Aug. 25, 1998, according to Jones and his lawyers. (The Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, which did not return messages requesting comment for this story, disputed this version of events in 1998 and has continued to do so in more recent court filings.)

Jones spent the afternoon watching Collin at his family’s Baltimore County apartment after his wife left for work.

Jones lifted weights while Collin sat in his baby swing nearby. Around 5 p.m., Jones fed Collin some formula and laid him down to sleep, carefully arranging foam blocks around the baby so he wouldn’t roll onto his back. He turned on classical music while Collin slept.

Jones took a nap, too, following the age-old parenting advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps.”

He awoke to a sputtering sound. Collin was choking on formula, struggling to breathe as when he’d had pneumonia a few weeks earlier. He went limp and floppy.

When Clarence Jones rushed his infant son to Sinai Hospital, doctors quickly saw signs that medical experts believed indicated the child had experienced shaken infant syndrome. (The Daily Record/File Photo)
When Clarence Jones rushed his infant son to Sinai Hospital, doctors quickly saw signs that medical experts believed indicated the child had experienced shaken infant syndrome. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Jones rushed Collin to the hospital himself, worried that an ambulance would take too long to find the new housing development where the family lived.

Doctors suctioned formula out of Collin’s airway, but the baby was already nonresponsive. Scans taken that night showed Collin’s brain was dying from a lack of oxygen.

Jones and his wife didn’t understand what had happened. The doctors, however, quickly formed an opinion and contacted police. Blood had appeared in Collin’s eyes and on the surface of his brain – symptoms that were clear signs of severe child abuse and “virtually diagnostic of violent shaking,” as one expert would later testify.

Baltimore County police immediately started building a case. Jones sensed they were crafting a narrative about him to match the horrific allegations.

“Their whole story is, ‘He’s a body builder. He’s a big guy. Body builders take steroids,’ ” Jones recalled.

Baltimore County Detective Phillip Marll pushed Jones to explain how Collin could have deteriorated so quickly.

“If you didn’t cause the injuries to Collin, who did?” Marll asked, according to court documents.

“The doctors aren’t lying. They aren’t making this up. Your son has been shaken.”

Jones insisted: “It didn’t happen. I didn’t hurt him. No one hurt him.”


Jones felt certain he would be vindicated – first, when he was charged with child abuse and blocked from seeing Collin again until his last moments at the hospital. And again, after Collin’s death, when the police officers told Jones he was being charged with first-degree murder.

“I was paralyzed,” Jones said. “My legs almost went out from beneath me and my brain just froze.”

A judge gave Jones bail – a rarity in a murder case – so that he could stay out of jail until his trial in the spring of 1999. His mother-in-law put up his bond.

Still, it was too late for Jones to attend Collin’s funeral, which took place while he was behind bars.

At Jones’ trial, the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office mustered a slate of experts to testify against him. Their conclusions were unanimous: Shaken baby syndrome was the only explanation for Collin’s injuries.

The group of symptoms, sometimes referred to as a “constellation” or “triad,” includes subdural hematoma, or bleeding on the surface of the brain; retinal hemorrhaging, or bleeding in the eyes; and brain swelling, or a loss of consciousness.

To the doctors who testified at Jones’ bench trial, these symptoms were a guaranteed sign of child abuse. Dr. Timothy Polk, an ophthalmology expert, told the judge the bleeding in Collin’s eyes was the worst he’d ever seen.

"I'm troubled with the flat-out statement it had to be shaken baby syndrome and nothing else," said pathologist Rudiger Breitinger, who testified on Clarence Jones’ behalf in 1999. "I don't think we have enough proof of that." (The Daily Record/File Photo)
“I’m troubled with the flat-out statement it had to be shaken baby syndrome and nothing else,” said pathologist Rudiger Breitinger, who testified on Clarence Jones’ behalf in 1999. “I don’t think we have enough proof of that.” (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Polk testified that he could “imagine no possible cause other than violent shaking” for Collin’s injuries.

Dr. Dennis Chute, a forensic pathologist who worked in the state medical examiner’s office, testified that Collin’s cause of death was shaken baby syndrome. Two pediatrics experts reached the same conclusion: Collin suffered a fatal brain injury that was caused by shaking.

In her closing argument, the prosecutor described Jones as a careless, distracted father who became enraged when his 9-week-old son interrupted his workout.

“He got frustrated and shook his son to death,” said then-Assistant State’s Attorney Susan Hazlett.

“Sixteen pounds versus two hundred forty,” she said, referring to the weight difference between Jones and his son. “Imagine the force generated, particularly by a man who has just finished a two-and-a-half-hour workout, pumping iron, had an energy drink which may have contained steroids. We don’t know that.”

Jones’ lawyer, Donald Daneman, objected to the claim that Jones had been using steroids. But the damage was done: Jones, according to the prosecution, was an unstable man who could have shaken his baby in a moment of fury.

The defense had a daunting task. If Collin hadn’t been shaken, what caused his devastating injuries?

Daneman tried throughout the trial to raise questions about possible medical causes. Collin had several serious medical conditions starting at birth, and some indicators suggested he had an infection on the day of his final hospitalization.

The defense presented one expert who found it difficult to conclude what happened to Collin with any certainty because the baby had so many overlapping medical problems when he died.

Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker was a well-known forensic pathologist in the Baltimore region when he testified for Jones. Even he said it seemed possible that Collin had been shaken, but he had doubts about what caused the baby’s sudden collapse.

There were signs of trauma, but also of catastrophic health failures that could have caused many of the symptoms associated with shaken baby syndrome, Breitenecker, who died in 2021, testified.

“Yes, trauma is worrisome, whatever trauma it was,” he said. “But I’m also worried about all the other complications. And I don’t know which is first, the chicken or the egg. And that’s why I find it impossible to separate the various facets and say, ‘Well, we’ll eliminate this, that leaves that.’ ”

“I’m troubled with the flat-out statement it had to be shaken baby syndrome and nothing else,” he continued. “I don’t think we have enough proof of that.”

Though his concerns turned out to be prescient, Breitenecker was a single voice against many other medical experts who disagreed. His testimony was not enough.

As he announced his verdict, Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull said the entire case revolved around the experts’ testimony.

The judge gave special weight to Polk’s opinion: the only possible conclusion he could reach was that Collin had been shaken. (Reached by phone, Polk declined to comment for this story.)

“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,” Turnbull said.

The judge found Jones guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. He presented the sentence as a break, Jones recalled, because the alternative was a first-degree murder conviction and life in prison.

Jones thought he might have a heart attack when he heard the sentence. His mother was with him in the courtroom.

“I turned around like a little baby myself, and said ‘Ma,’ ” Jones said.


Over the weeks that followed, Jones moved from the Baltimore County detention center to a state-run classification facility in Baltimore. From the window of his cell, Jones could look out and see the Domino Sugars sign lit up across the Inner Harbor.

Then came the van ride to prison in Cumberland, deep in rural western Maryland. The guard towers and tall gates. The prison cell — hot, dark and small.

Jones considered suicide during his first months in prison. He hardly left his cell and could barely force himself to eat the food.

Clarence Jones was a bodybuilder when he was accused of murdering his son, a fact that prosecutors used against him. (Contributed photo)
Clarence Jones was a bodybuilder when he was accused of murdering his son, a fact that prosecutors used against him. (Contributed photo)

Before his conviction, Jones spent years eating healthy and building up his body. He wanted to look good and stay in shape as he got older. And it was fun — as a young man, Jones was known for being able to walk on his hands for long distances. He and a friend once walked 228 steps on their hands to Baltimore’s Washington Monument in Mount Vernon, he recalled.

But in prison, Jones struggled to work out. His physique had been used to portray him as a madman capable of murdering his infant son.

“It almost led me away from it,” Jones said. “Something so good as keeping yourself up, healthy, they can turn it around and use it against you in the court of law.”

Eventually, with guidance from older prisoners, he came out of his cell more often. At his cellmate’s urging, Jones got a job to help cut time off his sentence.

He made extra money by designing greeting cards for other inmates. His calligraphy and artistic flair made his cards a commodity that could bring in $125 a month, Jones said. He used the money to supplement the prison meals with healthier food from the commissary.

Eighteen years passed. Jones learned to do electrical work and earned other certifications. He also witnessed the extreme violence that characterizes life in prison. He still carries a scar on his chest from when another inmate attacked him in the weight yard.

Jones’ mother, his biggest supporter, died while he was in prison.

“My mother stuck through with me through thick and thin with this,” he said. “It hurts me to this day that she never got to see her little boy make it out of there.”

Jones was released on parole in October 2017. The murder conviction still stained his record, though he had tried for years to have it reversed without success.

With help from the The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Jones petitioned for a writ of actual innocence in 2016. He kept pursuing the case even after his release from prison, hoping to someday prove that he had not hurt his son.


During the years Jones spent in prison, something was changing in the outside world: the medical certainty surrounding shaken baby syndrome.

The criminal justice system’s demand for proof beyond a reasonable doubt has led to the development of entire scientific fields – some now facing serious questions about their accuracy — aimed at definitively proving a suspect’s guilt or innocence.

Bloodstain patterns. Handwriting analysis. Firearm and toolmark examination.

The urge for irrefutable evidence is particularly strong in cases of alleged child abuse, which often happen with no witnesses and give police little to go off besides the word of the parent who brings a child to the hospital.

But a vocal minority of experts now say that the certainty doctors once assigned to the idea of shaken baby syndrome was misplaced. The “constellation” of injuries, once considered a virtually certain sign of child abuse, may have other causes – including causes that aren’t criminal.

“I think the broad problem is that what’s sometimes missing in these medical investigations of suspected abuse is the idea that there are limits to what the science can tell us,” said Jeffrey Gilleran, the chief attorney of Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s forensics division.

“Sometimes, ‘I don’t know’ is the proper conclusion,” he said.

The concept of “shaken baby syndrome” took shape decades ago, as doctors in the 1960s and 70s began to grasp just how much child abuse was happening behind closed doors.

In an effort to identify abuse, doctors studied and hypothesized how various injuries could point to specific forms of violence. Shaking was said to have specific markers, even if a baby showed no other external signs of abuse.

By the early 1990s, the American Academy of Pediatrics identified shaken baby syndrome as a “clearly definable medical condition” that could be diagnosed if an infant had the “constellation” of symptoms. The constellation includes bleeding in the eyes, bleeding in the area around the brain and brain injury or a loss of consciousness.

Dr. Joseph Scheller, a pediatric neurologist based in Baltimore, said the concept made physicians responsible for “diagnosing” child abuse, even when that role should have fallen to law enforcement or other experts.

“To be suspicious is one thing, but to say ‘I’m absolutely sure’ is another,” Scheller said in an interview. “The idea that (shaking) can cause a specific pattern of injuries, retinal hemorrhage, subdural hemorrhage and change in consciousness, that’s a theory.”

Studies in the decades since Jones’ conviction have raised doubts about the shaken baby syndrome theory. Those doubts also crept into the legal realm — the National Registry of Exonerations lists 26 cases involving shaken baby syndrome where a defendant was convicted and later cleared.

Some found that short falls could produce similar patterns of bleeding. Biomechanical studies have raised questions about whether shaking can generate the kind of force required to cause bleeding in a baby’s eyes.

Researchers have also concluded that some medical conditions can mimic the signs of shaken baby syndrome, including trauma related to the birth process, prenatal conditions, genetic disorders, bleeding disorders and infectious diseases.

Lauren Kelleher, an attorney at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, is part of the team representing Clarence Jones as he seeks compensation under the Walter Lomax Act. (Contributed photo)
Lauren Kelleher, an attorney at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, is part of the team representing Clarence Jones as he seeks compensation under the Walter Lomax Act. (Contributed photo)

And, importantly, studies have found that babies who suffer head injuries or related medical problems may remain lucid before they lose consciousness, which raises questions about the once-accepted idea that whoever was most recently with the baby must be responsible for the harm.

More than two dozen doctors and scientists signed onto an amicus brief in support of Jones’ petition for a writ of actual innocence. They described the scientific shift this way:

“Although the actual evidence for it was scanty, the ‘shaken-baby-syndrome’ hypothesis — namely, that observation of certain injuries to infants warranted the conclusion that the injuries were caused by child abuse — became well-accepted in the medical community by the late 1990s. More focused research in the years after 2001, however, has severely undermined that hypothesis.”

Many doctors still support the idea that shaken baby syndrome, or a broader category of injuries known as “abusive head trauma,” can be pinpointed fairly accurately when a baby has specific injuries.

Dr. Rudolph J. Castellani, a professor of neuropathology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said subdural bleeding in a child that has lost consciousness is still highly indicative of blunt force trauma.

“The idea that there is a controversy in the medical community, I think, is overstated,” Castellani said. “I think the quality of literature supports that there is a certain injury pattern that’s more likely to be found in an abused child than not.”

Castellani said he has not seen a case where a child had traumatic brain injuries that he felt were explained by a medical cause, rather than trauma.

Castellani testified for the prosecution at a weeklong hearing on Jones’s petition for a writ of actual innocence in December 2018.

The debate over shaken baby syndrome and possible medical causes of the constellation was central to Jones’s effort to prove his innocence in Collin’s death.

Collin struggled with medical problems from birth. His mother, who is no longer married to Jones and asked not to be named in this story, had a blood clotting disorder, and Collin showed signs of a similar problem soon after he was born.

Collin’s head was bruised and the plates of his skull overlapped after a traumatic delivery on June 21, 1998. He spent five days in the neonatal ICU and was treated for an infection before he could leave the hospital with his parents.

Jones dreamed of the day his son would play football.

“Collin was a beautiful baby,” Jones recalled with a laugh. “He favored me.”


At home, though, there were other signs that Collin’s health was flagging. Jones took Collin to the emergency room on July 14 because he was spitting up blood, a rare and dangerous symptom in babies. Collin was clammy, pale and breathing fast. His pediatrician diagnosed him with pneumonia, which took longer than usual to respond to antibiotics.

Collin stayed in the hospital for another five days.

The day before Collin’s fatal collapse, his grandmother noticed that he got stiff, shook and stared while she was caring for him, according to court filings from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.

Jones’ Innocence Project lawyers argued that if the medical debate surrounding shaken baby syndrome had been as prominent in 1998 as it is now, the murder trial might have ended differently.

At Jones’ writ of actual innocence hearing in 2018, it was the defense that mustered a list of experts to testify about shaken baby syndrome. This time, the experts explained the new scientific findings that had raised doubts about the theory’s accuracy.

The experts posited that Collin could have experienced a medical emergency that mimicked the signs of shaken baby syndrome, particularly the extensive bleeding in his eyes.

As a Maryland appeals court wrote in 2021, “Mr. Jones’ experts testified that, since 2001, research has identified non-(shaken baby syndrome) causes for Collin’s constellation.”

Collin’s death could have been caused by a loss of blood flow to the brain caused by aspirating baby formula or a severe infection, accompanied by massive bleeding in other parts of his body, the experts said. The problems may have been aggravated by a blood clotting disorder.

Though Collin’s medical problems were mentioned at Jones’ trial in 1998, they weren’t seriously considered as possible reasons for the bleeding in his eyes and around his brain.

On Feb. 2, 2021, more than three years after Jones was paroled from prison, a panel of judges on Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals gave Jones his writ of actual innocence in Collin’s death.

“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,” the court wrote.

“…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 unreported opinion received little attention. But for Jones, it meant he was no longer on parole — and, most importantly, he was no longer a convicted murderer in his son’s death.


This week, Jones will ask an administrative law judge to award him compensation under the Walter Lomax Act, a 2021 law that standardized the way exonerees are paid for the time they lost in prison.

Under the law, Jones could qualify for more than $1.6 million. The Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, however, disputes his eligibility.

“We contest that he is innocent and assert that he did in fact murder his child, Collin Jones,” the office wrote in a court filing.

Under the Lomax Act, Jones must show by “clear and convincing evidence” that he did not commit the crime for which he served prison time. The State’s Attorney’s Office contends Jones cannot do that.

Jones and his lawyers will once again present the evidence that they say exonerates him. Jones will also take the stand and explain the impact the conviction has had on his life.

“Even after his 2021 exoneration, Baltimore County prosecutors have opposed Clarence receiving compensation for the injustice of being wrongfully convicted,” said Lauren J. Kelleher, an attorney at Brown, Goldstein & Levy who is part of the team representing Jones.

“Instead of trying to mitigate the difficulties he endures and will continue to endure for the rest of his life, they have decided to wrongly re-prosecute him for the tragic death of his own son.”

Today, Jones lives in a tidy apartment at a complex in Baltimore County only a few miles from where he lived with Collin.

The two-bedroom unit is so immaculate it could serve as a staged unit for apartment showings. Jones keeps his nutritional supplements carefully organized in the kitchen; he uses the spare bedroom as a gym.

He switches on an easy listening station with the click of a remote and a laidback beat fills the living room. He loves Enya’s ethereal ballads and the acrobatic vocals of Adele, who he thinks has an edge over Mariah Carey as the best singer out there.

Life has been difficult even with a writ of actual innocence. Employers see his criminal record and balk.

His relationship with his other children, two daughters and a son who are well into adulthood, is strained because he missed so much of their lives while he was in prison.

He wants to marry his long-term partner, Peggy, but has held off because he doesn’t feel financially stable.

Jones — C.J., as friends and family call him — is nearly 60 years old now. Collin would be 24.

“I used to brag about him when he was born,” Jones said. “I said, he’s going to be the best football player. Because his daddy knows nutrition, his daddy knows the way of life.”

When Jones goes to the gym, it is full of young men who are the same age Collin would be if he had lived. As he jokes around with them, he wonders: Is that what Collin might have looked like?

Networking Calendar

Submit an entry for the business calendar