A dozen Cobb County residents, from varied walks of life, and strangers to each other until ten days ago, are now inextricably bound to each other, deep into intense discussions with each other, over the troublesome and heartbreaking case of two fellow Cobb County residents accused of abusing and murdering their own, 8-year-old son.
And what that jury of ten women and two men decides could send the parents to prison, possibly for as long as the rest of their lives, or release them to the embrace of family and friends and fellow church members who have shared their grief over the loss of their son.
The jurors are deliberating the murder and child cruelty case of Sonya and Joseph Smith. The jurors deliberated all day Thursday, their first, full day with the case, and will resume Friday morning. They told the judge late Thursday afternoon that if they don’t reach a verdict by lunchtime, Friday, they want to order out and work straight through their lunch break, rather than take an hour or so off, as they are allowed to do.
The jurors’ written questions to Cobb County Superior Court Judge James Bodiford on Thursday, hand-delivered to him from the jury room as their deliberations progressed, indicate they are examining the intricate details of both the state’s case against the Smiths and the defense attorney’s attempts to discredit that case.
Eight-year-old Josef Smith lost consciousness at home in Mableton on October 8, 2003. He was declared brain dead the next day.
Prosecutors say Sonya and Joseph Smith beat the life out of him, subjecting him to violent, physical abuse that ultimately killed him. The Smiths admit they had to spank their rebellious, out-of-control son, repeatedly, and did so without harming him, according to what they believe the Bible teaches about the importance of discipline and prayer in raising children.
Medical experts who testified for the defense said Josef’s death was probably due to a sudden blood infection. But the state medical examiner and Cobb County’s medical examiner testified for the prosecution that they concluded someone murdered Josef.
So now those twelve jurors have six days’ worth of medical evidence and testimony to examine, some of it conflicting and, the Smiths believe, none of it so conclusive as to prove they committed an unthinkable crime that, they insist, they did not commit.
The Smiths are each accused of 14 felony counts: one count of murder, three counts of felony murder, five counts of child cruelty in the first degree, three counts of aggravated assault and two counts of false imprisonment.
One of the questions the jury asked Judge Bodiford Thursday had to do with Count 5, which is one of the five counts of Cruelty to Children in the First Degree listed in the indictment. In Count 5, the Smiths are charged with inflicting on their son cruel and excessive physical and mental pain by striking him and by confining him in a wooden box.
The jurors wanted to know, in effect, that if they were considering convicting the parents of Count 5, did they first have to believe that the parents committed both acts — striking Josef, as well as confining him in a wooden box — or would one of the acts be sufficient to support a conviction on that count.
The jurors did not indicate which way they were leaning on Count 5. Judge Bodiford answered that, by law, in order to convict, the jurors had only to believe that the parents committed one, not both, of the acts.
Also, the jury asked about another part of the state’s case against the Smiths, which is that from May 1, 2003 until October 1, 2003 the Smiths often used “objects unknown” to strike Josef. The Smiths admitted they often used a foot-long, flexible glue stick to spank Josef. The jury wanted to know if that glue stick was one of the “objects unknown.” Judge Bodiford answered, “Legally, I am unable to comment on your question. Therefore, you, collectively, are the only ones that can answer that question, if it can be answered.”
The Smiths are free on bond, and on Thursday they waited for the verdict in the Cobb County Courthouse along with other members of their church — the Remnant Fellowship Church, based near Nashville, TN — who have filled the courtroom every day, in support of the Smiths, since the trial began February 5th.
The jury is also authorized to consider less serious, misdemeanor charges against the Smiths — including misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter, reckless conduct and battery — instead of the 14 felony charges listed in the indictment.