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Ninth Circuit Ordered to Reinstate Verdict in Shaken Baby Case

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 31, 2011 4:06 PM

The Supreme Court ordered the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate a verdict against Shirley Ree Smith today in a shaken baby syndrome case that grabbed national headlines. In the opinion, the Court also admonished the Ninth Circuit for repeatedly supplanting the jury verdict in the case with its own opinion.

"It is not the job of this court, and was not that of the [Ninth] Circuit, to decide whether the state's theory was correct. The jury decided that question, and its decision is supported by the record," the Court wrote in a per curiam opinion.

A jury convicted Smith of killing her seven-week-old grandson, Etzel Glass, in this 1997 shaken baby case, despite conflicting testimony from multiple expert witnesses. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the conviction in 2006, "deeming the evidence against her so flimsy it violated her constitutional right to a fair trial," reports the Los Angeles Times.

The Court reminded the Ninth Circuit Circuit Court of Appeals today that rational people can sometimes disagree on a verdict, but that court may only set aside a verdict on the basis of insufficient evidence if "no rational trier of fact could have agreed with the jury." The Court further opined that a federal appellate court may not use its superior position to overturn a state court simply because it disagrees with the state court.

The opinion, however, was not unanimous.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, dissented from the majority, arguing that the Court should have simply denied cert in the case, (instead of issuing reversal), but suggesting that the case was worthy of additional review based on increased medical understanding of shaken baby syndrome that had developed since Smith's case was tried in the '90s.

Shirley Ree Smith will now return to prison to serve out the remainder of her term, barring executive intervention. The Supreme Court, notably, mentioned the option of clemency in the case. Do you think the Court was trying to suggest that California Gov. Jerry Brown use his executive authority to achieve justice for Smith? Will the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals listen to the Supreme Court this time, or will it try to find another way to free Smith?

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