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Supreme Court reinstates 'shaken baby' verdict, chides 9th Circuit

October 31, 2011 | 11:11 am

Shirley Ree Smith

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reinstated the murder conviction of Shirley Ree Smith in the 1996 death of her 7-week-old grandson, striking down for the third time a federal appeals court's judgment that there was "no demonstrable support" for the prosecution's theory that she shook the baby to death.

Smith, contacted in Illinois where she has been living since she was allowed to leave her parole hold in California last year, broke down in tears at the news that she may have to return to prison.

"I did not kill my grandson. I won't go back to prison. I can't do that," said Smith, who said she had not been told of the high-court ruling by her attorney or court officials.

Smith, 51, spent 10 years in a California prison after a Van Nuys jury accepted the prosecution theory that she must have shaken the baby, Etzel Dean Glass, to stop him from crying.

She was convicted on the strength of a medical examiner's finding of a tiny pool of blood under the infant's skull.

There was no eyewitness testimony against Smith, and the baby's mother, Tomeka Smith, told the court her mother would never have hurt the child.

In 2006, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated her conviction and ordered her freed, deeming the evidence against her so flimsy it violated her constitutional right to a fair trial.

The Supreme Court reinstated Smith's conviction after each of the three 9th Circuit decisions in Smith's favor, stating the 9th Circuit had overstepped its authority in rejecting the decision of the trial court.

Monday's reinstatement of the conviction was final and brings the legal dispute to an end.

Smith ended up on skid row after her release from prison. A Los Angeles Times story in December on her continuing legal limbo moved readers to donate thousands of dollars to help her return to her daughter and grandchildren in Kankakee, Ill. 

It was not immediately clear whether or when Smith would have to resume serving her sentence, and her attorney, Michael J. Brennan, did not immediately return phone calls.

In their 6-3 ruling, the justices chided the 9th Circuit for persisting in the effort to overrule the jury's decision in the case, which resulted in a 15-years-to-life sentence for Smith.

“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 unsigned Supreme Court opinion said. "The jury decided that question, and its decision is supported by the record.”

The 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act prohibits an appeals court from second-guessing a jury's evaluation of the evidence except when it constitutes a clear violation or unreasonable application of the law.

The 9th Circuit judges three times ruled that Smith's conviction was one of those rare but patently wrong judgments.


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-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: Shirley Ree Smith last year outside a skid row house where she was living. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times