Prosecutors and a judge concluded that the scientific evidence behind what was once known as “shaken baby syndrome” has shifted dramatically in recent years, freeing a California man who had been incarcerated for 15 years in the death of his month-old son.
Clifton Jones, 45, was released from Soledad State Prison this month after a judge decided to reduce his sentence. Jones told The Associated Press, “The error that was made was eventually put right.”
Jones was arrested on Dec. 13, 2005, the day after his wife, Clifton Jones, Jr., died. Since regaining his freedom on April 15, one of the first things he did was pay a visit to his child’s grave.
“I just opened the floodgates, which was extremely difficult, but it was necessary because I needed a little more closure,” he said. “I’m already holding him in my arms, living his final moments. It’s very difficult to get that out of your head.”
Jones’ case is one of a slew of recent legal challenges to what was once considered standard proof of shaken baby syndrome, which was defined by brain swelling and bleeding within the skull and behind the eyes. According to medical professionals, the telltale pattern of injuries is no longer so obvious, and those signs may also be caused by a brief accidental fall.
The child died as a result of an unintentional trip and fall in their Sacramento home, according to Jones’ defense. They had fought when Jones tripped over a shoe and, unable to break their fall, he and his son crashed into a wall, causing the baby to hit the back of his head, resulting in his death.
Jones was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after a jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter and child abuse in the death of his son, based on the testimony of two doctors who said shaken baby syndrome likely caused the child’s death.
In February, his counsel, Anjali Srinivasan, filed an appeal for his release with the Northern California Innocence Project, claiming that, although the medical evidence might have been correct at the time of trial, recent medical advances indicate that the shaken baby syndrome testimony was fraudulent.
The petition was rejected by the California Superior Court in Sacramento, which stated that it required an expert declaration.
After months of talks with prosecutors, the team was able to secure Jones’ release after they decided to file a motion to resentence Jones for child endangerment, which carries a maximum term of six years in jail. As a result, he was released automatically and without parole.
In an email, Sacramento County Chief Deputy District Attorney Rod Norgaard said, “We do remember that the clinical evidence behind what was once called ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ has changed dramatically over the past few years.”
“We demanded the court recall the sentence and resentence the defendant after analyzing the procedural past, the evidence surrounding the conviction, and Mr. Jones’ initiative at recovery while incarcerated. The court looked into it as well and came to the same conclusion,” Norgaard said.
Jones said he took entrepreneurship and social and behavioral sciences courses while in jail and plans to open his own business one day. For the time being, he aims to assist those who have been wrongfully imprisoned or who have earned harsh sentences.
Jones, who has relocated to Alabama to be closer to his relatives, said, “I can help be a gateway to them because I got my life back but theirs is always on hold.”
In the future, Srinivasan aims to seek a “more full exoneration” of Jones, according to her.
“We appreciate the District Attorney’s office supporting us in pursuing the motion, and we believe it served the interests of justice to get him released as soon as possible,” she said.