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April 7, 2012

California Governor commutes sentence in shaken baby case which SCOTUS took up

This new Los Angeles Times article reports on the latest sentencing development in a high-profile state case that got the federal courts involved into legal debates over a potential wrongful conviction.  The full headline for the piece provides a basic summary of the case and this latest development: "Brown commutes sentence of woman convicted of killing grandson; Shirley Ree Smith was serving time for the Van Nuys death when an appeals court freed her. Then the Supreme Court ruled she should return to prison. Questions over whether the baby was shaken arose."  Here are more details from the start of the piece:

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday commuted the potential life sentence of a woman convicted of killing her infant grandson 15 years ago, saying "it is clear significant doubts surround" her guilt.

Shirley Ree Smith, 51, who was freed in 2006 after nearly a decade in prison but was destined to be reincarcerated after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year, said it "hasn't sunk in yet" that the threat of more prison time has been lifted. "I just can't believe this is finally over with," said Smith, choked with tears of relief, when reached at her daughter's home in Alexandria, Minn. "Everybody's so excited, but I just can't believe it."

Smith, who has always maintained her innocence, was convicted by a Van Nuys jury in 1997 of causing the death of 7-week-old Etzel Glass after testimony by coroner's officials that the infant died of a blow to the head. She was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Smith's clemency petition had been bolstered by new findings disclosed last week by the Los Angeles County coroner's office and a prominent UCLA pediatrician. Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. James Ribe raised eight challenges to the 1996 autopsy, which concluded that the baby died from violent shaking, then called shaken baby syndrome and now diagnosed as abusive head trauma. Ribe asserted that the cause of death should have been ruled "inconclusive."

"In light of the unusual circumstances in this particular case, the length of time Ms. Smith has served in prison, and the evidence before me that Ms. Smith has been law-abiding since her release from prison, I conclude that reducing her sentence to time served is appropriate," Brown said in his order.

Smith was the subject of a five-year legal jousting match between the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down her conviction in 2006, saying there was "no demonstrable support" for the prosecution's theory that she must have shaken the baby to death. She was released from prison after that ruling.

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April 7, 2012 at 10:43 AM | Permalink


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Something tells me that had the Ninth Circuit followed the law in the first place, Ms. Smith would have had this clemency a long time ago.

I can't help but feel that she got a slap on the wrist for a brutal murder.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 8, 2012 10:49:42 AM

well fed i suggest you go back and read the info the case. When the dr who did the original autopsy state's on the record she didnt' have a clue what she was talking about when she did said autopsy....and every dr who has looked at it since AGREES with her opinion NOW.... that's a hell of a lot of reasonable doubt! especialy when it was the dr's testimony at the trial that lead to her conviction!

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 8, 2012 4:43:31 PM

surely you know, rodsmith, that there would be additional evidence. The shearing suggests some pretty nasty trauma.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 8, 2012 5:20:45 PM

yes i agree. but i'm not sure where i read it. but from what i read the dr that did the original autopsy has since testifid she did not know what she was doing and if she had done it now...she would NOT have makred it down as murder.

since that was the bulk of the state's evidence. case is done!

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 9, 2012 2:13:44 AM

"slap on the wrist" = "after nearly a decade in prison"

Posted by: Joe | Apr 9, 2012 1:05:09 PM

not even ten years for murder--yeah, I'd say that was a slap on the wrist---of course, assuming she's guilty.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 10, 2012 11:40:13 AM

It is not uncommon really to get less than ten years for murder in various cases. Anyway, duly noted that the term doesn't really mean much.

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Posted by: Orestes | Aug 20, 2012 11:49:11 PM

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