The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the 1997 conviction of a woman who prosecutors said shook her grandson to death, ruling that despite doubts about her guilt the trial court’s verdict had to be respected.
It was the third and final time the justices reversed a federal appeals court ruling that there was “no demonstrable support” for the prosecution’s theory that Shirley Ree Smith must have shaken the infant to death to silence his crying while staying with relatives in Van Nuys. Smith, who had been released from custody in 2006 pending the government’s appeal of her case, is expected to return to prison before Christmas, her attorney said.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals freed Smith, 51, after she had served 10 years of her sentence of 15 years to life, deeming the evidence presented to the jury so flimsy as to have violated her right to a fair trial.
Smith broke down in tears when contacted by a reporter at a relative’s home in Kankakee, Ill., with news of the high court’s decision.
“I didn’t kill my grandson. I won’t go back to prison. I can’t do that!” said Smith, beseeching God to help her. “Why won’t the Supreme Court realize juries make mistakes? They’re human beings — they make mistakes.”
In its 6-3 decision, the high court acknowledged that there had been contradictory expert testimony about the cause of death of 7-week-old Etzel Dean Glass but said the jury was entitled to decide that the prosecution’s case was the more persuasive.
Two officials of the medical examiner’s office testified that a tiny pool of blood under the baby’s skull was the result of violent shaking. The absence of other indications of abuse could be explained, they said, by shaking so intense that the infant’s brain stem was severed.
Experts called by the defense testified that the baby probably died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, as the emergency room doctor at Mission Community Hospital reported as the suspected cause of death. Smith’s daughter, Tomeka, also testified that her mother had never raised a hand against her or her children.
In the fall of 1996, Smith moved to Van Nuys from Illinois to help Tomeka care for newborn Etzel, 14-month-old Yondale and 3-year-old Yolanda. On the night of Etzel’s death, Smith was sleeping in the living room of her sister’s apartment with the three grandchildren sleeping on the sofa and love seat. The baby slid onto the carpeted floor at one point, Smith said, but showed no signs of injury when she resettled him. When she later got up to use the bathroom, she found him lifeless and summoned paramedics.
“Doubts about whether Smith is in fact guilty are understandable. But it is not the job of this court, and was not that of the 9th Circuit, to decide whether the state’s theory was correct,” the justices said in an unsigned decision. “The jury decided that question, and its decision is supported by the record.”
The majority took note of the punishment Smith has already endured and said some reprieve might be in order but that any revision of her sentence was for state prosecutors to decide, not the courts.
Lawrence Daniels, a supervising deputy attorney general who argued the case for restoring Smith’s conviction, said he couldn’t answer questions about the case until he had fully reviewed the 18-page decision.
Smith’s attorney, Michael J. Brennan, said he would file a clemency petition with the state government but that the chances of it being granted were “extremely slim.”
“The attorney general’s office has fought vigorously to reincarcerate her for years. They don’t have the authority to say, ‘Just kidding, she doesn’t have to go back to jail,’ ” Brennan said.
Smith, 51, ended up on skid row last year after failing to find a job because of the baby-killing verdict on her record. A Dec. 16 story in The Times chronicling her separation from her family and the courts’ dueling decisions keeping her in legal limbo moved readers to donate thousands of dollars and airline miles that allowed Smith to be reunited with her family in time for Christmas.
Three justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer — dissented from the decision, calling the high court’s handling of the case “a misuse of discretion.” The dissent written by Ginsburg detailed more recent medical findings that support the defense experts’ version of Etzel’s death.
“In light of current information, it is unlikely that the prosecution’s experts would today testify as adamantly as they did in 1997,” the dissenters said.
Jeff Chinn, associate director of the California Innocence Project, said the high court’s decision wasn’t a reevaluation of the evidence against Smith, rather a termination of its long-running dispute with the 9th Circuit over an appeals court’s authority to strike jury verdicts.
“At this point, we’re just offering moral support to her. That’s all we can do right now,” Chinn said.