MARIETTA, Ga. — Former members of a Brentwood-based church said they hoped Friday’s conviction of Georgia couple in the death of their 8-year-old son would prompt the church and its followers to re-examine their child discipline teachings.
Joseph and Sonya Smith were found guilty of one count each of felony murder and involuntary manslaughter. They were remote members of Remnant Fellowship Church, which has Web-based outposts across the nation and was funding the couple’s defense.
The jury also convicted them of four counts of cruelty to children, three counts of aggravated assault, one count of reckless conduct and one count of false imprisonment in the death of their son Josef in 2003.
“I think (the Smiths) are the sacrificial lamb,” said Oklahoma mother Susan Warren, who joined a support group for former members after her grown daughter, Cary, left home and joined the church. “Maybe it will shock some people in the church. Maybe things will change. They’re playing with people’s lives when they discipline that way.”
The fellowship grew out of church leader Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program she created in 1986.
“The Smiths are innocent and so we will appeal this and fight for justice for the Smith family. This case is not over,” said a statement released on behalf of Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship Church members.
Defense attorney Manubir Singh Arora said he spoke briefly with the Smiths before they were taken into custody.
“I think it’s going to take them a while to let it all soak in. I think they’re a little stunned.
“I’m incredibly disappointed,” Arora said. “I never in my wildest dreams expected to lose on any of the four murder counts.”
Case spotlighted church
The church advocates strict discipline for children, including corporal punishment. Shamblin told The Tennessean earlier this month that she believed the Smiths were innocent and that media coverage since their arrest has distorted the church’s teachings on child discipline.
Investigators in the case raided the Weigh Down program’s Franklin headquarters in 2004. No one else, however, was charged in connection with the boy’s death. Officers testified that they never established a solid link between the church and the boy’s death.
Some former members who have called the church a “cult” watched trial coverage closely .
“My prayer was that the truth came out and I hope the truth did come out,” former member Steve Miozzi said Friday.
In a Marietta, Ga. courtroom Friday morning, the Smiths were motionless as Cobb County Deputy Clerk Tricia Crawford read the verdicts, although Sonya Smith closed her eyes after the jury found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter and murder.
The crowd in the courtroom was silent after Judge James Bodiford threatened to respond to any outbursts with 20 days in the county jail.
The Smiths were found not guilty of additional, separate counts of murder, felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless conduct, false imprisonment and cruelty to children. Sentencing is March 27.
“I’m pleased with the verdict. I’m pleased these two defendants will not get away with this brutal abuse,” prosecutor Eleanor Dixon said.
Several members of the church attended the court session but declined to comment.
Cause of death disputed
Prosecutors charged that Josef Smith was beaten, locked inside a wooden box and forced to stay in a closet for hours at a time before he died in October 2003.
Defense attorneys contended that Josef did not die from the injuries, and the county medical examiner failed to perform crucial tests that would have found the actual cause of his death.
A police witness said Josef Smith’s father told officers his 8-year-old son frequently needed discipline because the child carved death threats on the walls, keeping the family awake at night, and claimed he was a foot soldier for the devil.
But prosecutors said the parents met that behavior with a tragic overreaction that led to the boy’s death, his body full of bruises and other injuries, after an October 2003 prayer session.
The verdict came on what would have been Josef Smith’s 12th birthday.
Adam Brooks, a Philadelphia psychologist who attended the church for several months with his wife before leaving and creating a support group for former members, said he watched the trial closely.
“It’s a sad outcome, regardless of which side of the fence one is on regarding Remnant Fellowship, just to realize fundamentally what this is really about is the life of one little boy,” he said.