Federal appeals courts usually give state courts a lot of deference when it comes to the facts. But in a â€œmost unusual case,â€? the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals today (politely) took Californiaâ€™s Second District Court of Appeal to task for upholding a conviction based on scanty evidence.
Shirley Ree Smith was sentenced to 15 years to life after a Los Angeles jury essentially found her guilty of fatally shaking her baby grandson, and the Second District upheld her conviction.
Ninth Circuit Judge William Canby Jr., writing for a unanimous panel, called the case a probable miscarriage of justice.
Canby acknowledged that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, or AEDPA, constrains federal habeas review of state convictions. Then the U.S. Supreme Courtâ€™s Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, puts the question thus: When the evidence is examined in a light most favorable to prosecutors, could anyone rational arrive at guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?
In this case, no. â€œWith all due respect,â€? the Court of Appeal applied Jackson unreasonably, Canby wrote in Smith v. Mitchell. So the Ninth Circuit directed the lower court to grant a writ of habeas corpus.
With none of the typical signs of shaken baby syndrome, and a prosecution theory that suggested the baby had died of an undetectable tear in his brain stem, â€œThere was simply no demonstrable support for shaking as the cause of death.â€?
â€” Pam Smith