ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Cancel

California Governor Commutes Sentence in Shaken Baby Case

California Gov. Jerry Brown today commuted the sentence of Shirley Ree Smith, a 51-year-old woman whose 1997 conviction for shaking her infant grandson to death has drawn national attention.

Shirley Ree Smith sits in the living room of her daughter's duplex in Alexandria, Minn., on March 27, 2012. (Courtney Perry for NPR)

California Gov. Jerry Brown today commuted the sentence of Shirley Ree Smith, a 51-year-old woman whose 1997 conviction for shaking her infant grandson to death has drawn national attention.

The governor’s decision – which follows recent revelations regarding the forensic evidence used to prosecute the case – means Smith will not return to prison to continue serving a sentence of 15 years to life for felony child endangerment, a charge equivalent to second degree murder.

“From my review of the information before me, including materials from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, it is clear that significant doubts surround Ms. Smith’s conviction,” stated the governor in his order commuting the sentence. Brown also noted that Smith had already served an extended period in prison and had been “law-abiding” since her release as reasons to grant her clemency.

Smith has been out of custody since 2006 and now lives in Alexandria, Minn., with her daughter and surviving grandchildren. She broke down after being notified of Brown’s decision.

“I’m so glad I don’t have to go back to that place,” she said between sobs. “It’s so horrible.”

Dennis Riordan, one of Smith’s lawyers, thanked the governor. “We’re deeply grateful for the governor’s actions in commuting Shirley’s sentence, thereby saving an innocent woman from going back to serve a life sentence she should never have been given in the first place,” the attorney said.

From the start, Smith has maintained her innocence, insisting that she didn’t harm her 7-week-old grandson, Etzel Glass, who stopped breathing in a Van Nuys apartment and was pronounced dead by a doctor at a nearby hospital.

Prosecutors based the case against Smith on the autopsy findings of two forensic pathologists working for the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner. After discovering one to two tablespoons of blood on the child’s brain and bleeding in the optic nerve sheaths, the doctors ruled the death a homicide, concluding that someone violently shook Glass and slammed his head against an unknown object.

Yet the baby’s injuries didn’t fit the pattern typically associated with “shaken baby syndrome,” a diagnosis characterized by bleeding on the brain and in the retinas, as well as swelling of the brain.

During Smith’s trial, the doctor who supervised the autopsy, Dr. Eugene Carpenter Jr., advanced a unique theory, telling jurors that Glass was killed by invisible injuries to his brain stem that caused nearly instant death.

Smith’s case garnered intense scrutiny due to questions about the validity of Carpenter’s theory and other medical evidence.  The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned her conviction in 2006, stating that there was "there was simply no demonstrable support for shaking as the cause of death."

But in February, at the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court, the 9th Circuit reinstated Smith’s conviction, raising the potential for her return to prison.

Early this year, Los Angeles county prosecutors asked the coroner’s office to reassess the evidence in Smith’s case. Carpenter and the office’s top doctor, chief medical examiner-coroner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran stood by the homicide diagnosis. "Death is not due to natural causes and certainly not due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome," Carpenter stated in his report. "There is no reasonable doubt as to the cause of death."

But Dr. James Ribe, a veteran forensic pathologist in the office, strongly challenged the notion that Glass was murdered. In a strongly worded report, Ribe identified eight “diagnostic problems” with the case. Ribe stated that he saw scant evidence that the child had been assaulted, noting "the complete absence of bodily trauma, such as face trauma, grab marks, bruises, rib fractures, or neck trauma."

The doctor’s report – first disclosed by ProPublica, NPR, and PBS “Frontline” – described the baby’s head injuries as relatively minor and said they could have been caused by the birth process. Ribe also noted the child's lungs were dotted with tiny blood spots called petechiae, which are often linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and suffocation, and pointed out that Glass had been sleeping face-down on an "unsafe sleep surface" -- a couch cushion -- on the night of his death.

In Ribe’s view, the homicide ruling was unjustified. “There was head trauma,” wrote the pathologist, “but we don't know when it happened or how it happened. We don't know if it's related to the cause of death. The conservative approach would be to acknowledge these unknowns. The cause of death should be diagnosed as undetermined."

Smith’s attorneys obtained copies of the coroner’s office review from the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office and sent the reports to the governor. The lawyers say they are considering petitioning the state courts to exonerate Smith based on the fresh evidence that emerged during the review.

The deeply divided opinions at the coroner’s office underscore the evolving scientific thinking regarding sudden infant fatalities. In recent years, forensic pathologists have become increasingly aware of ailments and conditions that can cause symptoms that mimic the signs of child abuse.

Last year, ProPublica, NPR and PBS “Frontline” analyzed nearly two dozen cases in the U.S. and Canada in which people were wrongly accused of killing infants and toddlers. The joint reporting effort found that faulty medical evidence played a central role in each of the cases.

At the Smith family apartment today, the mood was exuberant. Tomeka Smith – Glass’s mother – said she ran outside shouting with joy when the news of her mother’s commutation came.

“I was screaming and hollering at the top of my lungs, ‘Thank you God,’” Tomeka Smith said.  “I am so, so happy. This is the best day of my life.”

For Shirley Smith, the day brought a series of emotional waves. “I’m very grateful,” she said, sounding relieved.

Moments later she added firmly: “The whole truth still hasn’t been told. I want my name totally cleared.”

Finally, the Governor does something worth a damn! Now lets arrest the prosecutor and the examiner that falsely testified!!!

So called ’ experts’ are a total load of sh1te .

These are “opinions” brought forth in a terribly flawed judicial system.  If the defendant had sufficient funds she well could have had her own “forensic experts.”

Unfortunately, under our justice system you have a “right” to have an attorney and to subpoena witnesses, however, that “right” doesn’t extend to the “best” attorney and the “best” experts. Sad, but true.

Without getting to political…lets send billions in foreign aid money to thankless nations while our own poor suffer in sub-standard housing and poorly represented in our Courts. Truly shameful!

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

April 9, 2012, 2:48 p.m.

Too bad that Gov Brown didn’t pardon the woman instead of merely commuting her sentence.  Then she could both legally own a gun and vote for Obama in November.
That said, I’m going to read the Supreme Court case, Cavazos v. Smith (2011) and get back to you.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

April 10, 2012, 9:09 a.m.

I’M BAAAACK!  Having read the Supreme Court’s Per Curiam decision in Cavazos v. Smith (2011) wherein the SCOTUS, by a 9 to 3 margin, reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to grant defendant’s Habeas Corpus motion, the following is apparent:
The Supremes based their decision on both long standing precedent and statutory Federal Law.  The precedent, Jackson v. Virginia, holds that a jury conviction that is even auguably plausible should stand.  The Federal Law, the Antiterrorism & Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, mandates that the Federal Courts give extreme deference to State Court decisions in cases where the the death penalty is, or could be, imposed.
In the inital trial before the jury, five medical experts offered their expert opinions over the course of SEVEN DAYS. Three testified (for the prosecution) that the cause of death was SHAKEN BABY SYNDROME (SBS).  One testified (for the defense) that the cause of death was SUDDEN INFANT DEATH SYNDROME (SIDS). The last testified (for the defense) that the cause of death was prior brain injury.
The jury heard the evidence and convicted Smith of Murder.

In our judicial system,when there is conflicting expert testimony, it is for the JURY not the COURT, to resolve the facts.  In an appeal, the standard is:  Was there sufficient evidence to support a conviction? If the answer is yes, the appeal must fail.  In essence, the SCOTUS reversed the 9th Circuit because, in their opinion, the 9th Circuit had substituted their evaluation of the evidence for the jury’s evaluation of the evidence, which is a judicial no-no.

One has to wonder how our goverment can get people out of prisons in other countries, but we cannot get the innocent back out of our own prisons!

Precedent aside, the legal system needs a way to address the evolving science around shaken baby syndrome.

In the years since Smith’s trial, critics of classic shaken-baby theory have started publishing in the medical journals. What was a generally accepted, if unproven, diagnosis in 1997 is now highly controversial. (See, for example, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/21/opinion/21tuerkheimer.html)

But even if you accept the classic model of shaken baby syndrome, the infant Etzel Glass had only one of the three symptoms that define the condition. I’m sure the doctors were sincere in their testimony, but objectively speaking, the evidence did not support Smith’s conviction—-as Dr. Ribe noted.

The excellent investigation last year by ProPublica et al. illustrated how justice can go astray in a case of child death. The history of shaken baby syndrome in the courts, alas, is a series of such cases.

I’m hoping that Shirley Smith’s story helps move forward an important but difficult debate. For the story of a family eventually exonerated of shaking allegations, please see http://onsbs.com/prologue/

The Medical Association has created this problem by recommending parents vaccinate their children when they have’nt developed an immune system yet.  Babies are injected at BIRTH with HepB then every other month there after, they are injected with several vaccines in one doctor visit.  Many are killed in the first few months of life (SIDS)  Some are saved but are damaged (SBS).  Some take months of accumulative poisons before they display damage (AUTISM).  The vaccine package INSERT says that brain hemorrhaging is an adverse reaction that can occur, rarely,(not so rare) but these doctors dont bring up this problem in court or the hospital or the doctor office.  It is hidden from the public because vaccines create lots of business from the damage they create.  Given the fact that the amount of vaccines have quadrupled from what they were 30 years ago, its not hard to come to the conclusion that it HAS to be the reason children today are riddled with health problems and disability.  Autism has skyrocketed along with vision problems and auto-immune diseases.  Do you see the correlation, brain and retinal problems.  When Japan stopped giving babies vaccines until they were 2 years of age, their SIDS completely vanished.  So this whole problem, along with the diagnosis, and letting innocent people go to prison, HAS to be STOPPED by the Medical Association.  FIRST DO NO HARM…..  Vaccines are loaded with toxic chemicals that infants cannot endure.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Post Mortem

Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America

A year-long investigation into the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices uncovered a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

The Story So Far

In TV crime dramas and detective novels, every suspicious death is investigated by a highly trained medical professional, equipped with sophisticated 21st century technology.

The reality in America’s morgues is quite different. ProPublica, in collaboration with PBS “Frontline”  and NPR, took an in-depth look at the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices and found a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

More »

Get Updates

Stay on top of what we’re working on by subscribing to our email digest.

optional

Our Hottest Stories

  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •