Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown commuted Shirley Ree Smith’s life sentence citing “significant doubt” about her guilt. In 1997, Shirley Ree Smith was babysitting for her infant grandson. Described by all who know here as a gentle, caring, and nurturing woman, Ms. Smith was devastated when she found her grandson unresponsive. Faced with a dead infant, the state charged Ms. Smith with murder saying the baby had been “shaken to death” even though there was no history or physical evidence of abuse.
Ms. Smith was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life for the ‘crime.’ A federal court later overturned her conviction, citing to differences in medical opinions as to the cause of the baby’s death. The United States Supreme Court, though, reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated Ms. Smith’s conviction and sentence.
Faced with having to return to prison, Ms. Smith applied to Governor Jerry Brown for a commutation. Last Friday, Governor Brown granted the commutation, saying
“in light of the unusual circumstances in this particular case, the length of time Ms. Smith has served in prison, and the evidence before me that Ms. Smith has been law-abiding since her release from prison.”
NPR and Pro Publica have been following this case and others involving people convicted of killing infants when the death may have been a tragic natural occurrence. When a child dies, the tragedy is overwhelming. The desire to find a “cause” may be contributing to innocent people being convicted and sentenced to long prison sentences for what may not have even been a crime.
You can hear the NPR update here.