Experts tell jurors 8-year-old boy died from bacterial infection, not from parental abuse
MARIETTA, Ga. — Eight-year-old Josef Smith wasn’t beaten to death by his parents, but instead died from a bacterial infection brought on by common dermatitis eczema, experts told jurors Monday at Joseph and Sonya Smith’s murder trial.
Two neuropathologists and a dermatologist pushed aside the prosecution’s theory that the defendants murdered their son by a combination of asphyxia and blunt-force trauma to the head on Oct. 8, 2003, at the couple’s Georgia home.
The Smiths are 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 for their son’s death.
Forensic pathologist Dr. Thomas Sporn, however, said after reviewing the autopsy report, medical history and tissue samples taken from Josef, he was able to determine that the boy “died due to complications of his brain being deprived from oxygen, due to overwhelming infection.”
Last week, the state’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Kris Sperry, testified that although he originally believed the cause of death was blunt-force trauma, his theory changed when he learned of statements the Smiths’ oldest son, Mykel Booth’s, made to the police.
The 16-year-old Booth first told police before testifying last week that he and his parents forced Josef into a wooden chest and tied the lid closed with an orange extension cord after the boy became disruptive during a Webcast of a service being delivered by the Remnant Fellowship Church.
The Smiths are members of the Nashville, Tennessee-based group, which encourages parents to physically discipline their children and maintain strict dietary control.
Soon after Josef was put in the box, Booth said, his younger brother stopped making noise.
Sensing something was wrong, Booth said he cut the extension cords and found Josef “making breathing noise, like when you push on the chest of a dead person.”
Sperry said Booth’s story made him reconsider his support for Cobb County Medical Examiner David Frist’s conclusion that Josef died as a result of blunt-force trauma to the head.
He told the jury Friday that the swelling found on Josef’s brain was just “an injury sustained during the course of the event and that the asphyxia or the lack of oxygen is the cause of death.”
“Once the child is in there and the door is tied shut, then he asphyxiates,” Sperry told the jury.
Sperry said that the injuries to Josef’s head, right side of the face and shoulder were consistent to having the lid of the chest slammed down on the child.
Sporn rejected Sperry’s conclusions saying, that although he has “no experience in stuffing children in a box, most people would agree that it would be difficult to stuff a healthy child in the box.”
The professor from Duke University told the jury that if Josef had been put in the box, he would expect to find some trace evidence, such as splinters on the child’s hands, abrasions on the boy’s elbows and knees, saliva and even blood in the box.
Authorities found no such trace evidence.
Sporn’s findings were supported by the testimony of neuropathologist Dr. Roger McLendon, but it was dermatologist Dr. Cheryl Burgess’ testimony that underscored the defense’s theory about the cause of death.
Burgess said that after noting Josef’s high white blood cell count, fever, and other internal irregularities, all signs pointed to an infection, one she contends was brought on by eczema.
The dermatologist used a series of photos from patients who had documented cases of the dermatitis and compared them with photo after photo taken of Josef’s body during his autopsy to support her diagnosis.
As she passed photos of Josef’s body around the jury to compare to the blown-up pictures of eczema cases she placed on an easel, she said the dermatitis can appear “very leathery looking, and also contain open areas due to scratching.”
Josef’s sores, she said, were the result of excessive scratching.
Once the eczema is scratched to the point of opening up the skin, she said, an infection can rapidly begin, and could turn deadly.
Burgess, a professor at Georgetown University, admitted that while it’s “not that common from everyday eczema, it’s a practical place that bacteria can get into the system.”
The Smiths face a sentence of 30 years to life in prison if convicted of murder.
Their case can be seen live on Court TV Extra.