Georgia v. Smith

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Joseph and Sonya Smith, a couple who lived in Mableton, Georgia, went on trial in February 2007 for the 2003 death of Josef Smith, their eight-year-old son. This case prompted authorities to raid the family's church in 2004 because it supports corporal punishment.[1]

The case[edit]

Josef Smith died at a children's hospital after paramedics were called to the family's home in Mableton, an Atlanta suburb.[1]

In October 2003 the boys' parents had told authorities Josef had passed out and never regained consciousness after the family gathered in the kitchen to participate in a prayer session with their church via the Internet.[1] Mr. Smith reportedly told police that when he went to pick his son up that he was "warm to the touch, wet with sweat, and unresponsive." Smith thought his son was overheating and he had carried the boy out to the carport and laid him down on the concrete hoping it would have a cooling effect, but that it didn't. They then called 911. Cobb County fire and rescue responded and found the eight-year-old lying on his back in the dining room, not breathing and without a pulse. He was rushed to the hospital where doctors later determined he was brain dead. He died a day later.[2]

Cobb County medical examiners concluded that eight-year-old Josef Smith died as a result of "acute and chronic" abuse. Police said that the parents often locked the boy in a closet and forced him to pray to a picture of Jesus.[3]

The Smiths admitted disciplining their son by striking him with a glue stick, but claimed the punishment never rose to the level of abuse. [3]

Church connection[edit]

The Smiths were members of the Brentwood, Tennessee-based Remnant Fellowship Church since they joined in 2000, which grew out of church leader Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program she created in 1986. Authorities raided the church in June 2004 as part of the investigation of Josef Smith's death.

The Smiths were arrested in December 2003 and spent four months in jail before Remnant church members posted their bond.[4] In an interview with Gwen Shamblin, she said that Remnant church members decided to collectively foot the Smiths' legal bills.[4]

Former members of the Smiths' church said the groups teachings on discipline include discussion of corporal punishment. Church leaders stated that they leave discipline to parents and that spankings are a last resort.[5] At one point, Remnant Fellowship’s website contained the following testimony from a member: “I was hesitant and sometimes refused to properly discipline my children because I didn’t want to ‘hurt’ them or have them hate me.” Now, “I discipline my children in order to save their souls from hell rather than being concerned about their flesh.”[6]

Before jury selection, the Smiths' attorneys stated that the defense had made a deal with prosecution to limit the church's involvement in the trial.[7] Police investigators said they could not find any link between the boy's death and the religious institution.[8]

Remnant Fellowship is the owner of www.thesmithsareinnocent.com which attempts to lay out their reasoning for the Smiths' innocence. At one point they also owned www.thesmithsareguilty.com which automatically redirected you to the www.thesmithsareinnocent.com website. Their site mainly contends that Joseph died from a bacterial infection as a result of "his chroic eczema and continual scratching he was plagued with."

After the Smiths' eventual conviction, Tedd Anger, one of the church's leaders, said they still believe the Smiths are innocent.[9] However, both the Cobb County medical examiner and the state medical examiner did agree that Josef's death was a homicide, not an accidental death and not a death due to illness. At the trial, witnesses for the state called it one of the worst cases of child abuse they'd ever seen.[10]

As of 2013, the Smiths are still members of Remnant Fellowship.

Charges[edit]

Joseph and Sonya Smith were each charged with four counts of murder, five counts of first-degree cruelty to children, three counts of aggravated assault and two counts of false imprisonment.[11]

The trial[edit]

Prosecution[edit]

Prosecutors in the trial said Joseph and Sonya Smith beat their son Josef, locked him in a wooden box and confined him to a closet for hours at a time before he died in October 2003.[5]

Defense[edit]

The defense attorney for the Smiths said the injuries on the boy's body did not cause the boy's death and that the medical examiner did not perform tests that would have cleared his clients.[1]

During the trial, the defense attorney pointed out that there was no DNA evidence to prove the boy was locked inside the wooden box as the prosecution claimed. The defense also said the closet that prosecutors accused the parents of locking the boy in had no wall to prevent him from going into his bedroom, because his father had been renovating the house.[1]

The defense claimed that the boy died from septic shock resulting from a severe staph infection. Within an hour of the boy's arrival at the Cobb County Hospital Emergency Room, his blood test result came back "Gram positive for Coagulase-Negative Staphylococcus" and showed a white blood cell count of 21.5 thou/uL (the normal range is between 3.4 and 9.5). He also had a high fever that the medical staff were able to reduce down to 102.5 °F. A CAT scan of the head indicated there was no bleeding, no hemorrhage, no concussion, and no skull fracture. A CAT scan of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis all came back showing "no signs of acute and internal hemorrhage nor significant injury".[12]

Verdict and sentencing[edit]

The Smiths were found guilty by all 12 members if the jury on February 16, 2007 which coincidentally would have been Josef’s 12th birthday. They were both found guilty on 11 counts: one count each of felony murder, reckless conduct, false imprisonment; three counts of aggravated assault, and four counts of cruelty to children (two specifically pertaining to glue sticks and others to unknown objects)

After being convicted, the Smiths were then sentenced on March 27, 2007 to life plus 30 years in prison, the maximum punishment, by Cobb County Superior Court Judge James Bodiford.[5] At the sentencing hearing approximately two dozen supporters for the Smiths were in the courtroom, and several friends spoke on the couple's behalf, describing them as kind.[5]

The judge called the letters of support for the Smiths "amazing," but said the supporters likely didn't have all the details.[5]

Appeal proceedings[edit]

One of the church's leaders, said they still believe the Smiths are innocent and that the church would "... support the Smiths in any way possible".[5] The Church is standing by the couple and helping fund their legal appeals and solicit donations for them on the Internet. Attorney, Manubir Singh Arora, who represented the Smiths at trial will not be handling their appeal. He told reporters that he was surprised and impressed by the level of support the church had shown the couple. Frankly they've helped out a ton, Arora said. And while people may or may not agree with whatever their beliefs are or the weight loss issues, the fact someone is willing to stick it out with you during one of the worst cases and worst times shows they're decent people. [13]

The defendants did file a motion in Cobb county for new trial arguing the "ineffective assistance of counsel" of their defense lawyer,[14] but that was denied on Oct 8, 2009[15]

An appeal was then brought to the Supreme Court of Georgia. This appeal was denied on Nov 8, 2010 when the Supreme Court of Georgia on a 5-2 vote upheld the murder convictions and life prison sentences given to both Joseph and Sonya Smith. The dissenting opinions cited improper conduct of the trial judge for allowing unfair and potentially prejudicial "theatrics" by the prosecution to gain an outcome based on passion rather than on the facts of the case. They also cited inadequate jury instructions and definitions for some of the specific charges.[16][17]

A petition was filed on Feb 7, 2011 with the United States Supreme Court[18] asking the Supreme Court to review the decisions made in the lower courts. This petition was denied on June 27, 2011.[18]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e Yee, Daniel (2007-02-07). "US couple whose church backs corporal punishment go on trial in son's death". Associated Press. [permanent dead link]
  2. ^ Pordum, Matt (2007-02-08). "Babysitter: Dad accused of killing his eight-year-old son told me to 'hit him hard' if he cried". Court TV. 
  3. ^ a b Pordum, Matt (2007-02-09). "Murder trial set to start for parents accused of beating their 8-year-old son to death". Court TV. 
  4. ^ a b http://www.wbir.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=42009
  5. ^ a b c d e f Yee, Daniel (2007-03-27). "Ga. Parents Sentenced in Boy's Death". Associated Press. 
  6. ^ http://www.religionnewsblog.com/6064/newschannel-5-investigates-firm-beliefs-part-1
  7. ^ Kalodimos, Demetria (2007-02-05). "Parents Charged In Child's Death To Go On Trial". WSMV Nashville Channel 4 News. Retrieved 2007-05-30. 
  8. ^ Yee, Daniel (2007-03-27). "Couple get life terms for killing their son". Associated Press. Retrieved 2007-03-27. 
  9. ^ Fox News. 2007-03-27 http://www.foxnews.com/printer_friendly_wires/2007Mar27/0,4675,ChurchChildDeath,00.html.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  10. ^ http://www.11alive.com/news/article_news.aspx?storyid=92302&provider=top
  11. ^ http://www.cobbsuperiorcourtclerk.org/courts/docAltiffFS.asp?tiffFile=T1961103&pagesFile=9&currPage=1&cfn=20060080692
  12. ^ http://thesmithsareinnocent.com/wordpress/?p=5
  13. ^ French, Rose (2007-03-28). "Church leading appeal of Ga. parents sentenced in child’s death". Associated Press. Archived from the original on 2007-09-26. Retrieved 2007-04-06. 
  14. ^ http://www.cobbsuperiorcourtclerk.org/courts/docAltiffFS.asp?tiffFile=T3021189&pagesFile=8&currPage=1&cfn=20090069611
  15. ^ http://www.cobbsuperiorcourtclerk.org/courts/docAltiffFS.asp?tiffFile=T3168399&pagesFile=2&currPage=1&cfn=20090133713&blocked=N
  16. ^ http://www.gasupreme.us/sc-op/op_summaries/nov_8.pdf
  17. ^ http://www.gasupreme.us/sc-op/pdf/s10a1281.pdf
  18. ^ a b http://www.supremecourt.gov/Search.aspx?FileName=/docketfiles/10-1093.htm

External links[edit]