Did the teachings of a Brentwood-based church lead to the beating death of a little boy? A tape may provide answers.more>>
By Phil Williams Chief Investigative Reporter
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Leaders of a controversial Williamson County church have lost a bid to prove two of their members innocent of murder.
The ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court comes three years after Joseph and Sonya Smith were sentenced to life in prison for the beating death of their 8-year-old son. The child's death put the focus on how the Remnant Fellowship taught its members to discipline their children.
Video obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates shows Joseph and Sonya Smith just a month before prosecutors say the Atlanta couple killed little 8-year-old Josef.
Their church, the Brentwood-based Remnant Fellowship, and its founder, Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin, have waged a vigorous campaign in their defense -- even putting up a website called "The Smiths Are Innocent."
Yet, in reviewing their 2007 murder convictions, the Georgia Supreme Court has now ruled in a 5-to-2 decision that the Smiths are indeed guilty.
"The record reveals that Joseph and Sonya Smith routinely disciplined their son, Josef, by beating him with glue sticks, belts, and heated coat hangers; locking him in confined spaces for extended periods of time; and tying his hands with rope," wrote Justice Harold Melton in the majority opinion.
Former Remnant recruit Adam Brooks told NewsChannel 5 Investigates back in 2004 that "glue sticks are actually sort of common within the Remnant Fellowship culture to be used to physically discipline children."
In fact, our investigation of the church's teachings also uncovered a tape in which Sonya Smith had bragged to Shamblin about how they had seen results from locking young Josef in his bedroom for four days with just his Bible.
"That's a miracle," Shamblin responded. "You've got a child that's going from bizarre down to in-control. So praise God."
The Remnant leader denied having said that.
Still, a stunt in which prosecutors threw a mock birthday party for the dead child during closing arguments in 2007 drew the ire of two justices who thought the Smiths deserved a new trial.
"The prosecutor's stunt was intended to evoke sympathy for the victim so that the jury, diverted from the facts, would return a verdict based on passion, not the evidence and the law," Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote in her dissent.
"Our courtrooms are not theaters; the participants in a criminal trial are not actors in reality television programs," the dissent says. "It is not enough to 'frown on' behavior that undermines the very foundation of the criminal proceedings. We have to stop it. And the only effective manner means of stopping it is to punish this behavior in the strongest possible manner. The only thing that gets attention is reversal."
In the end, the Smiths' trial attorney testified that he did not object to that fake birthday party because he thought it was so outrageous that it might turn the jury against the prosecutor.
The Georgia Supreme Court majority ruled that was a "reasonable" tactic.
Remnant Church leaders did not respond to a request for comment.