BRENTWOOD, Tenn. – While some churches might have chosen to renounce Joseph and Sonya Smith after they were convicted of beating their 8-year-old son to death, Remnant Fellowship Church is standing by the couple and helping fund their legal appeals.
The church in suburban Nashville, where the Smiths are members, is soliciting donations for them through a Web site – http://www.thesmithsareinnocent.com.
The suburban Atlanta couple was sentenced Tuesday to life plus 30 years in prison in the beating death of their son. The investigation into the death of Josef Smith included a raid on the church because it supports corporal punishment.
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Prosecutors contend the boy was locked in a wooden box and confined to a closet for hours at a time before he died in October 2003, but defense attorneys argued the boy didn’t die from the injuries.
Authorities say the boy was chronically abused and died from a blow to the head. His parents faced charges that included murder, aggravated assault, cruelty to children and false imprisonment.
The Smiths are members of the Brentwood-based church, which grew out of church leader Gwen Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program she created in the 1980s.
The Smith case led authorities to investigate the church, though police who testified during the couple’s trial said they could not find a link between the boy’s death and the church’s teachings about punishment.
Members of the church could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday about their efforts to support the couple’s appeal on Wednesday.
Remnant leaders have supported the couple throughout the case, with some members attending the couple’s trial in Georgia. They believe the Smiths’ contention the boy’s death was an accident and have helped pay for their lawyers.
Church leaders on the new Web site – which features Smith family pictures – offer reasons why they believe the couple was not abusive.
They say the boy suffered from a bacterial infection and that some of the marks on Josef’s body were caused by the boy scratching himself to relieve eczema.
“How this simple case could get so out of hand is a mystery,” the Web site states. “Something just does not add up.”
Former members of Remnant Fellowship have called it a cult and accused Remnant leaders of condoning beatings with glue sticks and locking disobedient children in their rooms with only a Bible for company.
Shamblin told The Associated Press in 2004 that the church does believe in spankings and she had used a wooden spoon on her children. Shamblin said she hadn’t advocated glue sticks as punishment but didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.
Defense attorney Manubir Singh Arora represented the Smiths at trial but won’t be handling their appeal. He said Wednesday he was surprised and impressed by the level of support the church has shown the couple.
“Frankly they’ve helped out a ton,” Arora said. “And while people may or may not agree with whatever their beliefs are or the weight loss issues, the fact someone is willing to stick it out with you during one of the worst cases and worst times shows they’re decent people.”
Associated Press Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.