MARIETTA, Ga. – An 8-year-old was beaten by his parents, locked inside a wooden box and forced to stay in a closet for hours at a time before he finally died in October 2003, a prosecutor told the jury as the trial of the couple began in Cobb County.
“Josef’s body will tell you the story of what happened to him,” Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Dixon told the jurors, who were seated earlier Tuesday in the trial of Joseph and Sonya Smith in the death of their son, Josef.
“There was beating after beating after beating, and then he died,” Dixon said.
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Defense Attorney Manny Arora cautioned the jurors that they would see photographs depicting horrible injuries, but said those injuries “did not cause Josef’s death.” Arora said he would show that the medical examiner did not perform tests that would have cleared his clients.
On Oct. 8, 2003, police and emergency medical personnel went to a home in Mableton, 12 miles northwest of Atlanta, after a report of an unresponsive Josef, who later died at a children’s hospital.
The parents were charged in a 14-count indictment in June with murder, cruelty to children, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
Testimony was to begin on Wednesday.
The Smiths are members of the Franklin, Tenn.-based Remnant Fellowship Church, which grew out of church leader Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program she created in 1986. Authorities raided the church in June 2004 as part of the investigation of Josef Smith’s death.
Authorities found “an enormous amount of different injuries on the back side” of the child’s body and “a recent bruising and swelling to the head and shoulder area,” according to the arrest warrant.
Investigators said in the warrant the child had been struck with a glue stick “causing blood to show through the 8-year-old’s underwear” and that he had been locked in a closet and made to pray to a picture of Jesus on the closet’s ceiling. They said in the warrant that despite acknowledging the bloodied underwear, the Smiths had deprived the child of medical care.
Former Remnant members have suggested to investigators and reporters that church teachings on discipline include corporal punishment.
Shamblin previously said the church leaves discipline to parents but believes in spankings as a last resort. She also said critics fooled former Remnant members into believing they were part of a cult.
Dixon told jurors that Josef was beaten by his parents using various objects, including the glue stick, which she described as a foot-long piece of flexible material for use inside a glue gun.
She said the boy was known as a “wild youth who had issues” but said his parents never took him to a doctor or to see a counselor.
Arora told jurors that photographs of the boy’s injuries “may make you sick to your stomach. It was that bad.”
But he said, “The injuries to the body did not cause Josef’s death.”
The lawyer said the medical examiner failed to perform crucial skin and neurological tests during the autopsy to determine the actual cause of death. He said it was attributed to blunt force trauma to the head, but Josef’s brother, Michael, told authorities twice that the head injury was caused a few days earlier when he slipped and fell on a banister.
Arora said the medical examiner failed to consult neurologists to determine the severity of that head injury. “He didn’t do the job correctly,” he said.
As for the wooden box, Arora said there was no DNA evidence to prove the boy was ever locked inside. Arora said the closet that prosecutors accused the parents of locking the boy in had no wall to prevent him from going into his bedroom, because Joseph Smith had been renovating the house.