Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals erred by substituting its own judgment for the jury's in the 'shaken baby' conviction of a California grandmother, the Supreme Court said. The reversal will send Shirley Ree Smith back to prison.
The 6-to-3 vote marks the third time the justices have reversed a panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in the same case, Cavazos v. Smith (10-1115).
The case involves the conviction of Shirley Ree Smith for allegedly shaking and killing 7-week-old Etzel. At her 1997 trial, jurors heard conflicting testimony about whether the infant died of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) or of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The jury decided that Ms. Smith had caused the death. She was subsequently sentenced to serve 15 years to life in prison.
The verdict was upheld by the trial judge, a state appeals court, and a federal judge. But the Ninth Circuit panel disagreed with the jury’s interpretation of the evidence, and reversed the conviction.
In vacating that opinion, the Supreme Court essentially scolded the Ninth Circuit for reaching a legal conclusion that was “plainly wrong,” and for substituting its view of the evidence in place of the jury’s conclusions.
“It is the responsibility of the jury – not the court – to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial,” the court said in an unsigned opinion. The justices said a reviewing court may set aside a jury’s verdict for insufficient evidence only when “no rational trier of fact could have agreed with the jury.”
“Because rational people can sometimes disagree, the inevitable consequence of this settled law is that judges will sometimes encounter convictions that they believe to be mistaken, but that they must nonetheless uphold,” the court said.
“The court of appeals in this case substituted its own judgment for that of a California jury on the question of whether the prosecution’s or the defense’s expert witnesses more persuasively explained the cause of a death.”