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In 1996, Shirley Smith moved from Illinois to Van Nuys, California to help her daughter Tomeka care of her newborn son, and two other young children.

Smith was sleeping in the living room of her sister’s apartment with her three grandchildren.  According to Smith, during the night, the infant slid onto the carpeted floor, but since there was no signs of injury, she placed him back  in bed and went back to sleep.

Later on, however, when she arose to use the bathroom, she found the baby lifeless and called paramedics.  The infant, 7-week-old Etzel, was unable to be revived and was pronounced dead.

In 1997, Smith was convicted of shaking her grandson to death, and was sentenced to fifteen years to life in prison, even though evidence, shown below, was debatable.

  • Two officials of the medical examiner’s office testified, that even though there was no other indications of abuse, a tiny pool of blood under the baby’s skull was the result of violent shaking.
  • The emergency room doctor reported the suspected cause of the infant’s death to be Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
  • Experts called by the defense also testified the infant probably died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
  • Smith’s daughter, Tomeka, testified  her mother had never raised a hand against her or her children.

Even with this debatable evidence, Smith was convicted by a jury and spent the next ten years in prison.

In 2006, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned Smith’s conviction, as it found “no demonstrable support” for it, and concluded “there has very likely been a miscarriage of justice in this case.”

Unfortunately for Ms. Smith, last fall after five years of freedom, the Supreme Court overruled the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision.  Although in its ruling, the Supreme Court acknowledged that “doubts about whether Smith is is fact guilty are understandable”, the court’s original verdict had to be respected.

Ms. Smith broke down when she heard the Supreme Court’s ruling saying, “I didn’t kill my grandson…Why won’t the Supreme Court realize juries make mistakes?”

The only course of action for Smith’s attorneys was to appeal to Governor Jerry Brown to commute the 51-year-old grandmother’s prison sentence or she would be sent back to prison for at least five more years.

In April 2012, Governor Brown did commute Shirley Smith’s sentence, citing “significant doubts” about her guilt.  Smith is, of course, relieved and overwhelmed by Governor Brown’s decision.

Smith’s attorney stated that while they are jubilant over the commutation of Smith’s sentence, he might still pursue the overturning of her second-degree murder conviction.