Evidence

Calif. Gov's Clemency to Woman in Shaken-Baby Case Ends 9th Circuit's Legal Battle with Supremes


For five years, a federal appeals court has been trying to free Shirley Ree Smith. It held in 2006 that the evidence on which her second-degree murder conviction was based in the death of her infant grandson just wasn’t sufficient to establish her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in the shaken-baby case.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has resisted, most recently ruling, in a divided Oct. 31 opinion, that the jury’s decision had to be respected and Smith’s conviction had to be reinstated, recounts the L.A. Now blog of the Los Angeles Times.

But now the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has been backed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who granted clemency to the 51-year-old Smith on Friday and commuted her sentence. She had already served a decade of the 15-years-to-life term before being released in 2006 after the 9th Circuit ruling.

Smith’s lawyer, Michael J. Brennan, says she may still seek to overturn her conviction so that her record is clean.

Smith, who lives with a daughter in Minnesota, burst into tears when she heard about the governor’s action, Pro Publica reported in a detailed article about the case. It also provides a link to the governor’s commutation order.

Two forensic pathologists with the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner testified at Smith’s trial that her grandson had died of shaken-baby syndrome, Pro Publica recounts, and the coroner’s office stood by that diagnosis when asked by Los Angeles County prosecutors earlier this year to go over their findings.

However, a veteran pathologist there, Dr. James Ribe, strongly disagreed and said in a report that the cause of death should be listed as undetermined due to a lack of evidence as to what occurred.

Smith’s case is one of a number of convictions in which evidence once thought to be determinative concerning shaken-baby deaths is now being questioned. An earlier ABA Journal article discusses the controversy:

Unsettling Science: Experts Are Still Debating Whether Shaken Baby Syndrome Exists

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