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Jerry Brown commutes grandmother's murder sentence

April 6, 2012 | 11:27 am


This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday commuted the prison sentence of a 51-year-old woman convicted of shaking her infant grandson to death 15 years ago, citing "significant doubts" about her guilt.

Shirley Ree Smith has already served 10 years of the 15-years-to-life sentence she was given after a Van Nuys jury convicted her in the death of 7-week-old Etzel Glass. The jury relied on testimony by two coroner's officials relating evidence that another deputy medical examiner recently deemed "inconclusive."

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 three times saying there was "no demonstrable support" for the prosecution's theory that she must have shaken the baby to death.

Smith was freed by the 9th Circuit action in 2006 when the 9th Circuit said the evidence presented at her 1997 trial was "simply not the stuff from which guilt beyond a reasonable doubt could be established." But the Supreme Court reinstated her conviction five months ago, saying the jury's conclusions about the evidence had to be respected. She was to be returned to California and reincarcerated as a result of the high court's final ruling.

[Updated at 11:50 a.m. April 6: Smith, who has been living with her daughter in Minnesota in recent months waiting for action on her petition for clemency, said she was overwhelmed by the decision.

“I just can’t believe this is finally over with,” said Smith, choked with tears of relief. “Everybody’s so excited, but I just can’t believe it.”]

Her attorney, Michael J. Brennan, said he had reached her with the news and that she was jubilant over the commutation but might still pursue overturning of her second-degree murder conviction.

In the divided opinion issued by the Supreme Court on Oct. 31, even the six justices in the majority observed that "doubts about whether Smith is in fact guilty are understandable" and that clemency might be appropriate for her.

Gil Duran, a spokesman for the governor, said the commutation of Smith's sentence to time served was Brown's first grant of clemency in this term as governor and that he granted only one other during his first two terms as governor. Gov. Ronald Reagan, by contrast, issued 17 commutations while in office, Duran said.


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--Carol J. Williams

Photo: Shirley Ree Smith. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times