Doctor raises doubts about marks on boy

MARIETTA, Ga. — Marks on the body of an 8-year-old whose parents are accused of killing him could have been caused by skin infections, a defense witness testified Monday.

Dr. Cheryl Burgess, a dermatologist, said areas of redness found on Josef Smith’s legs, back and shoulder could have been caused by skin irritation.

“These star-like, irregular shapes … are usually an indication of scratching,” Burgess said as she reviewed the boy’s autopsy photos in front of the jury. “There are a lot of scratch marks where it’s the most itchy.”

Burgess, an assistant clinical professor at George Washington University and Georgetown University in Washington, also described parallel lines found in Josef’s inner thigh as “explorations from scratching.”

Joseph and Sonya Smith of Mableton face 14 charges that include murder, aggravated assault, cruelty to children and false imprisonment in their son’s October 2003 death.


The prosecutor has argued that the parallel lines formed after the boy was struck by a glue stick his parents used to discipline their son. Joseph Smith previously admitted to authorities that he used that object on Josef at least once.

Burgess said the glue stick would not have left pairs of lines on the skin. She also said that if objects were used to inflict pain, they likely would have been easily identified.

Earlier Monday, Dr. Thomas Sporn, an assistant professor of pathology at Duke University, testified that he disagreed with the autopsy findings of Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist, who concluded in January 2004 that Josef died from blunt-force trauma to the head.

Sporn said he had reviewed hospital records, glass slides of body tissue, witness statements and Frist’s autopsy report and found the medical investigation to be “incomplete.”


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.

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