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A New Turn In Calif. 'Shaken Baby' Case


And now for an update on a story that NPR and our partners ProPublica and Frontline reported recently.

In 1997, a California grandmother named Shirley Ree Smith was convicted of shaking her seven-week-old grandson to death. She spent 10 years in prison until a federal court overturned her conviction. But last year, the Supreme Court overruled that decision, and Smith was expected to return to prison, until yesterday, that is, when Governor Jerry Brown commuted her sentence. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reported the story and joins us now.

Joe, what happened to Shirley Ree Smith, and why did Governor Brown commute her sentence?

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Shirley Ree Smith had moved to California in 1997. She was - wanted to help her daughter Tomeka take care of a baby boy named Etzel. And one night while the baby was asleep, Shirley Ree Smith found her grandson limp. He was rushed to the hospital. He died. An autopsy concluded that he died because he'd been shaken violently, even though there were none of the usual signs of shaken baby syndrome. There was no bleeding behind the retinas, no brain swelling, no bruises on the body.

And yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown said there were significant doubts surrounding her conviction. And earlier this year, the Los Angeles coroner's office was asked to review the medical evidence. It was that office that did the original autopsy in 1997 that led to Smith's conviction. But now, the top medical examiners at that office said they weren't so sure about how the baby died.

SULLIVAN: In your reporting on the story, you discovered that what we think we know about unexpected deaths of young children is changing. Has that affected Smith's case?

SHAPIRO: It did, Laura. Fifteen years ago, child abuse was a default assumption. The last person with the child was almost certainly the perpetrator of an outrageous crime. But now, doctors and scientists have a better understanding of other causes, including diseases and blood clotting disorders that leave marks on the body that can mimic the signs of child abuse. Last month in Texas, Ernie Lopez walked out of prison likely to face a new trial. That was another case we reported on last year.

Medical examiners in that case, they never looked at the medical evidence that the baby had an extreme form of a blood clotting disorder. In the Smith case, there is reason to suspect that it might have been from some trauma at birth. It might have been a short fall he took from the couch where he was sleeping or that he was sleeping face down.

SULLIVAN: Is Shirley Ree Smith's case typical?

SHAPIRO: It is. Almost always the accused are people on the margins of society. Like Shirley Smith, they're poor, they're members of minority groups, they have little education. Often - and this wasn't true in Shirley Ree Smith's case, but often, they've had some previous run-ins with the law. These things are the equivalent of wearing a hoodie. They make you quickly suspected, and they make you easier to convict.

SULLIVAN: NPR's investigative correspondent Joe Shapiro. Joe, thanks so much for the update.

SHAPIRO: Thank you, Laura. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.