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U.S. Supreme Court

Doubts About Guilt in Shaken Baby Case Don’t Justify Reversal, U.S. Supreme Court Says

Posted Oct 31, 2011 10:10 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Doubts about a grandmother’s guilt didn’t merit overturning a jury verdict based on prosecutors’ theory that an infant died from shaken baby syndrome, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The Supreme Court granted cert and reversed the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today in a summary reversal. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen G. Breyer. “Justice is not served by the court’s exercise of discretion to take up this tragic, fact-bound case,” Ginsburg wrote.

The Supreme Court opinion (PDF) said the 9th Circuit improperly substituted its judgment for that of jurors who found Shirley Ree Smith guilty in the 1996 death of her grandchild, 7-week-old Etzel Glass. Smith was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

Smith said she was sleeping on the floor next to the couch where Etzel was sleeping when she awoke and discovered the boy wasn’t breathing. She says she gave him a jostle to try to rouse him. When a social worker told Smith an autopsy found the boy had died of sudden infant death syndrome, Smith reportedly said something to the effect of, “Oh, my God. Did I do it? Did I do it? Oh, my God.”

Prosecutors called three experts who testified the infant died from shaken baby syndrome. One defense expert testified the baby died from an older trauma, while a second defense expert said the cause was sudden infant death syndrome.

“In light of the evidence presented at trial, the 9th Circuit plainly erred in concluding the jury’s verdict was irrational,” the Supreme Court opinion said. “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 jury decided that question.”

The Supreme Court said it had twice vacated the 9th Circuit’s judgment in the case. “Each time the panel persisted in its course, reinstating its judgment without seriously confronting the significance of the cases called to its attention,” the opinion says. “Its refusal to do so necessitates this court’s action today.”

The court’s opinion said the case may be one that merits a clemency request, though it wasn’t clear if the process had already been invoked. According to SCOTUSblog, Smith has been free for the last five years, living in a run-down hotel on skid row in Los Angeles. She will have to return to prison as a result of the decision.

Ginsburg’s dissent argues the summary reversal is a misuse of discretion and the Supreme Court should have denied cert. “Beyond question, the court today reviews a case as tragic as it is extraordinary and fact intensive,” Ginsburg wrote. “By taking up the case, one may ask, what does the court achieve other than to prolong Smith’s suffering and her separation from her family. Is this court’s intervention really necessary? Our routine practice counsels no. …

“What is now known about shaken baby syndrome casts grave doubt on the charge leveled against Smith.”

The case is Cavazos v. Smith. Hat tip to SCOTUSblog and How Appealing.

Updated at 10:55 a.m. to include information from SCOTUSblog.

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