MARIETTA, Ga. — Joseph and Sonya Smith’s 8-year-old son wasn’t the only one of their children to die in 2003, jurors learned Thursday during the couple’s murder and child abuse trial.
Just 11 weeks before Joseph and Sonya Smith’s 8-year-old son died, allegedly from abuse, the couple’s 18-month-old son Milek died from complications from an irregular heartbeat. But lawyers on both sides of the Smiths’ case had already agreed that jurors were not to hear about the toddler’s death, and that witnesses could not testify about it because the information could unfairly influence the jury.
The couple’s oldest son let the fact slip Friday, however, while describing the death of Josef, and the testimony nearly prompted a mistrial.
Mykel Booth, 16, said his family was engaging in a Webcast church service of the Remnant Fellowship Church on Oct. 8, 2003, when Josef began “screaming, cursing and carrying on.”
The Nashville-based group, of which the Smiths are members, allegedly encourages parents to physically discipline their children and maintain strict dietary control.
Mykel, who currently lives with his maternal grandmother, said his parents told him to put Josef inside a wooden chest with a wicker exterior.
“So I put him in the box because my mother was scared of him and I was scared of him too,” Mykel said. “I told him to get in the box because every time we prayed, he tried to do things to my little brother James.” James was 2 at the time of the incident.
Once he successfully got his brother in the chest, Mykel said, they tied the lid closed with an orange extension cord because Josef kept “popping his head up.”
Mykel said his brother continued cursing in the box, saying, “I’m going to kill all you motherf—–s when I get out.”
He testified that his brother went on to scream, “James is the first one on my list. I’m going to slit his throat when I get out.”
Soon after, Mykel said, the yelling stopped.
Sensing something was wrong, Mykel said, he cut the extension cords and found his little brother “making breathing noise like when you push on the chest of a dead person.”
He said his father was coming out of the shower at that moment, and Smith ran to the box and pulled his son out.
“He tried to give him mouth to mouth and they started praying, hoping they wouldn’t lose another son,” Mykel said.
Within seconds of the words leaving Mykel’s lips, Joseph Smith’s attorney, Manubir “Manny” Arora asked to approach the bench, and the jury was sent out of the courtroom. Arora argued that the information would unfairly prejudice the jury and suggested that the judge hadn’t been paying attention during pretrial motions.
“You don’t get up and tell the trial judge that they weren’t paying attention,” Cobb County Superior Court Judge James Bodiford said. “You let your tongue waggle a bit too much.”
After a three-hour recess, Arora apologized for his remarks, and the judge accepted the apology but denied his request for a retrial.
Bodiford then brought the jury into the courtroom and instructed them to disregard the statement.
The couple has been charged with four counts of felony murder, five counts of first-degree cruelty to children, three counts of aggravated assault and two counts of false imprisonment. They face 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.