Jury now weighs fate of Georgia couple charged in son’s death

MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) – The fate of two members of a Brentwood-based church accused of murdering their 8-year-old son is now in the hands of a Georgia jury.

Joseph and Sonya Smith face 14 charges that include murder, aggravated assault, cruelty to children and false imprisonment in the death of their son, Josef Smith.

The Smiths are members of the Brentwood-based Remnant Fellowship Church, which grew out of church leader Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program she created in 1986.

Like many members of the far-flung church, the Smiths tuned into worship services via the Internet from their home in Mableton, Ga.

Remnant Fellowship

Theologically, Gwen Shamblin’s ministries are considered cults of Christianity, due to their rejection of key doctrines of the Christian faith. Sociologically, Shamblin’s Remnant Fellowship has cultic characteristics as well.

Authorities raided the church in May 2004 as part of the investigation into Josef Smith’s death. However, no charges have been filed against other church members.

Following the closing arguments, the jury was given lengthy instructions by Judge James Bodiford and began deliberations about 3:30 p.m.

Prosecutors allege Josef Smith 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 in October 2003.

In his final presentation to the jury, defense attorney Manubir Singh Arora acknowledged that pictures of Josef’s injuries were shocking but he asked jurors to “look past the surface.”

If excessive discipline led to the child’s death, the parents should face a lesser charge, not murder, he said.

“It’s going to be either battery or reckless conduct and not those capital charges,” Arora said.

He disputed the allegations of abuse, saying the boy suffered from a bacterial infection. He said some of the marks on the Josef’s body were caused by the boy scratching himself to relieve eczema.

Arora also insisted the prosecution’s expert witnesses could not agree on the cause of death and then asked the jury, “Why put the burden on you?”

But Senior Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Dixon cited testimony that items including a belt, clothes hanger, high-heeled shoes, an extension cord, glue stick and wooden paddle were used in what she said was a long period of abuse against the boy.

“Doctors testified these were painful injuries,” Dixon said. “This wasn’t discipline. This was abuse, time and time again.”

The parents watched impassively through Wednesday’s closing arguments until Dixon brought out a birthday cake, lit the candles and began singing “Happy Birthday” for “dear Josef.” Joseph and Sonya Smith embraced and continued sobbing after Dixon completed the song.

As Joseph and Sonya Smith broke down in tears Wednesday, reminded the Cobb County Superior Court jury that there should be more than eight candles on the cake.

The parents declined to testify in their own defense on Tuesday, after a judge strongly advised them not to.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday February 15, 2007.
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