MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — Josef Smith’s father told police his 8-year-old son frequently needed discipline because the child carved death threats on the walls that kept the family awake at night and claimed he was a foot-soldier for the devil.
But prosecutors say the parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, met that behavior with a tragic overreaction that led to the boy’s death — his body full of bruises and other injuries — after an October 2003 prayer session.
The parents were charged in a 14-count indictment in June with murder, cruelty to children, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. Their trial is expected to last through next week.
Prosecutors allege the boy was beaten by his parents, locked inside a wooden box and forced to stay in a closet for hours at a time before he died.
Defense attorneys for the couple say Josef did not die from the injuries, and that the county medical examiner failed to perform crucial tests that would have found the actual cause of his death.
On Wednesday, the prosecution showed jurors emergency room photographs of what appeared to be bruises on the boys head, shoulders, torso and legs. The panel of 10 women and four men had no visible reaction as they examined the pictures. The panel includes two alternates, who Superior Court Judge James Bodiford has not identified.
“You can see the bruises and injuries which appear to be in various stages of healing and occurrence,” said Steven Gaynor, who was a Cobb County police detective at the time of Josef’s death. Gaynor currently works for the department’s special operations unit.
After the boys death, Joseph Smith openly told police investigators that he frequently disciplined the boy with a glue stick, a foot-long piece of flexible material used inside a glue gun.
“He said he on occasion struck young Josef with a belt but most of the time they struck him with the glue stick and that was for discipline. In the past they had used a switch but that didn’t appear to be very effective,” Gaynor said. “He said he knew Josef had all these abrasions on his body because he had treated some of them.”
The father told detectives they stayed up at night after their son carved death threats against the family on walls of the house and that he claimed he was “Legion, soldier of the devil,” Gaynor said.
“I pictured it as (in the movie) ‘The Exorcist’ when you change your voice and become a different person. He said that young Josef would … make note he wanted to kill everybody in his family,” Gaynor said. “Because of the activities that young Josef was reportedly doing, the family was extremely tired. He (Joseph Smith) indicated it was very stressful for the family to have to take all these actions.”
County firefighters responding to a 911 call for help at the Smith residence also testified Wednesday that the boy was “covered” in what appeared to be bruises across his body.
Police and emergency medical personnel went on Oct. 8, 2003, to a home in Mableton, 12 miles northwest of Atlanta, after a report that Josef was “unresponsive.” He later died at a children’s hospital.
The boys parents told authorities he passed out and never regained consciousness after the family gathered in the kitchen to participate in a prayer session with their church via the Internet.
“While first arriving on the scene, I noticed a slight mark _ it looked like an older mark on his right arm,” said firefighter Jeremy DeJames. “Once in the hospital, I saw multiple marks on the child … lots of bruising, possibly some burn marks, that started from his lower back down to his ankles, and they were covered.”
But DeJames admitted after questioning by defense attorney Manubir Singh Arora that he did not know for certain that the marks were bruises. A second firefighter, Andrew Rustin, also said he saw bruising and even what appeared to be burn marks on the boy’s body.
“I’ve got an 8-year-old and he plays and falls … but he doesn’t have the bruising that we saw,” Rustin said.
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.
“There was some indication that possibly the church was involved but nothing solid was ever determined,” Gaynor said Wednesday during the trial.