(CN) - The Supreme Court on Monday rebuked the 9th Circuit for siding with California woman convicted by a jury of shaking her 7-week-old grandson and causing his death.
Persuaded by experts for the prosecution, a jury found that 7-week-old Etzel Glass had died in 1996 of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) and that his grandmother, Shirley Ree Smith, was responsible. Smith was sentenced to 15 to life for assault on a child resulting in death.
After unsuccessfully appealing her conviction to the state courts, Smith fared better in the 9th Circuit.
The federal appeals court concluded that the jurors unreasonably adopted the prosecution's explanation for cause of death over the explanation proffereed by the defense: Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In 2006, a three-judge panel ordered the Central District of California to grant Smith's writ of habeas corpus.
"Despite the plentitude of expert testimony in the trial record concluding that sudden shearing or tearing of the brainstem was the cause of Etzel's death, the Ninth Circuit determined that there was 'no evidence to permit an expert conclusion one way or the other' on that question because there was 'no physical evidence of ... tearing or shearing, and no other evidence supporting death by violent shaking,'" a majority for the Supreme Court wrote. "The court said that the state's experts 'reached [their] conclusion because there was no evidence in the brain itself of the cause of death.' (emphasis in original). The court concluded that because '[a]bsence of evidence cannot constitute proof beyond a reasonable doubt,' the California Court of Appeal had 'unreasonably applied' this court's opinion in Jackson v. Virginia in upholding Smith's conviction."
"That conclusion was plainly wrong," the unsigned opinion states.
Six justices agreed that the lower court's holding flies in the face of the 1979 Jackson v.Virginia, a 1979 case that "makes clear that it is the responsibility of the jury - not the court - to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial."
"Because rational people can sometimes disagree, the inevitable consequence of this settled law is that judges will sometimes encounter convictions that they believe to be mistaken, but that they must nonetheless uphold," the majority explained.
"In light of the evidence presented at trial, the Ninth Circuit plainly erred in concluding that the jury's verdict was irrational, let alone that it was unreasonable for the California Court of Appeal to think otherwise," it added. "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 Ninth Circuit, to decide whether the state's theory was correct. The jury decided that question, and its decision is supported by the record."
"It is said that Smith, who already has served years in prison, has been punished enough, and that she poses no danger to society. These or other considerations perhaps would be grounds to seek clemency, a prerogative granted to executive authorities to help ensure that justice is tempered by mercy. It is not clear to the court whether this process has been invoked, or, if so, what its course has been. It is not for the Judicial Branch to determine the standards for this discretion. If the clemency power is exercised in either too generous or too stingy a way, that calls for political correctives, not judicial intervention.
"The decision below cannot be allowed to stand. This court vacated and remanded this judgment twice before, calling the panel's attention to this court's opinions highlighting the necessity of deference to state courts in §2254(d) habeas cases. Each time the panel persisted in its course, reinstating its judgment without seriously confronting the significance of the cases called to its attention."
Three other justices called out the majority for reversing the court in summary disposition, calling it a "misuse of discretion."
"Beyond question, the court today reviews a case as tragic as it is extraordinary and fact intensive," according to the dissent authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. "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."
Noting that the 9th Circuit accurately described its legal limitations and Jackson, Ginsburg said "this court has no law-clarifying role to play."
"Its summary adjudication seems to me all the more untoward for these reasons: What is now known about shaken baby syndrome (SBS) casts grave doubt on the charge leveled against Smith; and uncontradicted evidence shows that she poses no danger whatever to her family or anyone else in society," she added.
"In light of current information, it is unlikely that the prosecution's experts would today testify as adamantly as they did in 1997," the dissent also states.
"What is now known about SBS hypotheses seems to me worthy of considerable weight in the discretionary decision whether to take up this tragic case."
Citing the majority's mention of previous defiance by the 9th Circuit, Ginsburg said her colleagues seem to use Smith's plight "as a fit opportunity to teach the Ninth Circuit a lesson."
Compounding her disagreement on the merits, and the apparent example that the high court has made of this case for the 9th Circuit, Ginsburg said the majority erred in handling a complicated case in summary disposition.
"Peremptory disposition, in my judgment, is all the more inappropriate given the grave consequences of upsetting the judgment below: Smith, who has already served ten years, will be returned to prison to complete a sentence of fifteen years to life," she wrote. "Before depriving Smith of the liberty she currently enjoys, and her family of her care, I would at least afford her a full opportunity to defend her release from a decade's incarceration."
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