Javier Cavazos, Acting Warden v. Shirley Ree Smith


The case concerned the death of 7-week-old Etzel Glass. On November 29, 1996, Etzel’s mother, Tomeka, put Etzel to sleep on a sofa before going to sleep herself in another room. Respondent Shirley Ree Smith—Tomeka’s mother—slept on the floor next to Etzel. Several hours later, Smith ran into Tomeka’s room, holding Etzel, who was limp, and told her that “something was wrong with Etzel.” By the time emergency officials arrived, Etzel was not breathing and had no heartbeat. Smith reported that she thought Etzel had fallen off the sofa. The officials’ efforts to resuscitate Etzel failed.

Doctors initially attributed Etzel’s death to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the customary diagnosis when an infant shows no outward signs of trauma. But after an autopsy, the coroner concluded that the cause of death was instead shaken baby syndrome (SBS). Smith was arrested and charged with assault on a child resulting in death. Cal. Penal Code Ann. §273ab (West 2008) (“Any person who, having the care or custody of a child who is under eight years of age, assaults the child by means of force that to a reasonable person would be likely to produce great bodily injury, resulting in the child’s death, shall be punished by imprisonment . . .”).

At trial, the jury heard seven days of expert medical testimony on the cause of Etzel’s death. The prosecution offered three experts, each of whom attested that Etzel’s death was the result of SBS—not SIDS, as the defense contended. The defense called two experts to dispute these conclusions.

The jury found Smith guilty. Concluding that the jury “carefully weighed” the “tremendous amount of evidence” supporting the verdict the trial judge denied Smith’s motion for a new trial and sentenced her to an indeterminate term of 15 years to life in prison. On direct review, Smith contended that the .evidence was not sufficient to establish that Etzel died from SBS. After thoroughly reviewing the competing medical testimony, the California Court of Appeal rejected the claim. The California Supreme Court denied review.

Smith then filed petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court for the Central District of California, renewing her claim that the evidence was insufficient to prove that Etzel died of SBS. The Magistrate Judge concluded that the evidence was “clearly sufficient to support a conviction.” The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge’s report and denied the petition. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed with instructions to grant the writ. Despite the plentitude of expert testimony in the trial record concluding that sudden shearing or tearing of the brainstem was the cause of Etzel’s death, the Ninth Circuit determined that there was “no evidence to permit an expert conclusion one way or the other” on that question because there was “no physical evidence of . . . tearing or shearing, and no other evidence supporting death by violent shaking.”

 The opinion of the Supreme Court in Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307 (1979), make clear that it is the responsibility of the jury—not the court—to decide what conclusions should be drawn from evidence admitted at trial. A reviewing court may set aside the jury’s verdict on the ground of insufficient evidence only if no rational trier of fact could have agreed with the jury. A federal court may not overturn a state court decision rejecting a sufficiency of the evidence challenge simply because the federal court disagrees with the state court. The federal court instead may do so only if the state court decision was “objectively unreasonable.”

Because rational people can sometimes disagree, the inevitable consequence of the settled law is that judges will sometimes encounter convictions that they believe to be mistaken, but that they must nonetheless uphold.

The Supreme Court observed that the Court of Appeals in the present case substituted its judgment for that of a California jury on the question whether the prosecution’s or the defense’s expert witnesses more persuasively explained the cause of a death. The Supreme Court held that in light of the evidence presented at trial, the Ninth Circuit plainly erred in concluding that the jury’s verdict was irrational, let alone that it was unreasonable for the California Court of Appeal to think otherwise. The petition for a writ of certiorari and respondent’s motion to proceed in forma pauperis were granted. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was reversed, and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.