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Supreme Court Reinstates Conviction Of Grandmother In Shaken Baby Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has once again rebuked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in California. This time, the court, by a 6-to-3 vote, reinstated the conviction of a California grandmother for shaking her baby grandson to death. The court's unsigned opinion, provoked a strong dissent from three of the justices, who accused the court majority of using a "tragic case" to "teach the Ninth Circut a lesson."

Shirley Smith, the grandmother of 7-week-old Etzel Smith, was convicted of killing him after a seven-day trial that was a dominated by conflicting medical experts. The jury was ultimately convinced that Etzel had died from Shaken Baby Syndrome, and Smith was sentenced 15 years to life in prison.

The California state courts upheld the conviction, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned it, finding that there had been "a miscarriage of justice" because there was "no demonstrable support" for the prosecution's theory of the case.

Without hearing arguments, a six-justice majority said that the appeals court had imposed its own judgment in place of the jury's judment, and that the lower court thus exceeded its authority. The court majority acknowledged that "doubts about whether Smith is in fact guilty are understandable," but nonetheless said the high degree of deference due to the state courts barred the kind of second-guessing engaged in by the federal appeals court.

Dissenting were Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Ginsburg wrote that what is now known about SBS "casts grave doubt" on the charge leveled against Smith. She went on to note that all the experts in the case, including the prosecutor's expert witnesses, agreed that few of the usual signs of Shaken Baby Syndrome were present in this case. She observed that there had never been any report of child abuse in this family, and she said that given the doubts posed by the physical evidence in the case, the Supreme Court should have stayed its hand. She went on to chastise the majority for being "bent on rebuking the Ninth Circuit" and using the case "as a fit opportunity to teach the Ninth Circuit a lesson."

For its part, the majority noted that this case had made its way to the Supreme Court twice before, and that the lower court "each time persisted in its course," setting aside the jury verdict, despite clear signals from the Supreme Court to do otherwise. This time, the court majority said, the Ninth Circuit's action "cannot be allowed to stand."

The High Court decision puts an end to a highly controversial case that for more than a decade has made legal headlines in California. It also means that the grandmother, Shirley Smith, who served 10 years in prison before being released, will now have to return to prison to serve at least another five years.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.