Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips
Conchita Carter, left, Lynette Jordan and other members of Danyel Smith's family protest in front of the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Center on Thursday. Smith was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 for the murder of his two-month-old son Chandler. Smith's family has traveled from Florida twice to protest what they said is injustice.
LAWRENCEVILLE — Helen Smith keeps a running tally, ticking like a clock in her head, of days her son has been incarcerated. Come early May, the tally will be nine years, or 3,285 days.
To Smith and family members in her grassroots crusade, each day represents a mounting injustice, each rejected appeal another option vanished.
Their cause is Danyel L. Smith, now 35, a Norcross man convicted in 2003 of killing his 2-week-old son, Chandler, who slipped into a coma before being taken off life-support a week later. During trial, a pediatric neurosurgeon testified the infant showed signs of shaken-baby syndrome, or abusive head trauma, and Smith was the last person alone with the child.
Helen Smith and family point to expert testimony, medical records and a 911 call they say should exonerate her son — details that jurors never heard. And they’re hellbent on making noise.
Eleven members of the Smith family piled into three cars in their hometown of Cocoa, Fla., and for the second time this year staged a small rally at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center this week.
Brandishing signs scribbled in marker, divvying flyers to any passerby who’d listen, the women endured unseasonal heat to chant “No justice — no peace,” “New trial,” “Free Danyel” and then sing hymns. An encore rally in downtown Atlanta was scheduled Friday.
The family has thrice appealed Danyel Smith’s conviction and lost, most recently to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2009. A motion for a new trial in Gwinnett — containing what the family calls infallible evidence in favor of Smith’s innocence — was denied in 2007.
Thus, the rallies.
“Nobody wants to listen to the medical proof,” Helen Smith said. “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck — it’s a duck, sir.”
The primary source of contention involves testimony from three doctors, two heard at trial and the third at a hearing for a new trial years later.
At trial, a private pediatrician told jurors Chandler, the infant, was brought in by both parents on April 29, 2002, for his two-month physical exam. The baby appeared to be in good health, and was thriving at home, even gaining six pounds since his premature birthweight of under five pounds, Dr. Anne S. Frankel testified.
After the doctor’s appointment, Chandler’s mother left him with Danyel Smith while she went to the Norcross health department for baby items. Officials at the department told the mother she needed to have the baby to obtain food stamps, so she phoned Smith and asked him to bring Chandler.
On the way, Smith called her to say something was wrong — the baby wasn’t breathing. When Smith arrived at the office, he and several others tried to revive Chandler to no avail. Emergency responders took Chandler to Scottish Rite at Childrens Healthcare of Atlanta, where he was treated by pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. William Boydston.
Boydston testified to finding blood clots in Chandler’s brain, a skull fracture, hemorrhaging in his eyes, wrist fractures and a bruised abdomen. Prodded about the cause of death by a prosecutor, Boydston said he’d ruled out the possibility of accidental trauma.
“You don’t get skull fractures without some mechanism to cause that,” Boydston testified. “I think it was shaken baby, I’ll be happy if somebody can tell me something else.”
That something else came years later, in the form of a second opinion by Dr. Michael Baden, a famed forensic pathologist featured on television shows and a veteran of some 20,000 autopsies.
Baden testified in Gwinnett as part of Smith’s motion for a new trial in 2007, after reviewing police and autopsy photographs, microscopic slides and relevant reports.
A fracture on the child’s head appeared weeks old and exhibited fluid that takes months to develop, an injury that can result in seizures, Baden testified, according to court records.
Baden saw no evidence of injuries to the child other than the abdominal bruising, which could have been inflicted during CPR, he testified.
“My opinion is that there’s no evidence Chandler suffered any blunt-force trauma on April 29,” Baden testified.
Also coming to light after the trial were details of a 911 call from March 10, 2002, in which Candler’s mother reported the child appeared to be having seizures. The call came at 3 a.m., when Danyel Smith was at work.
A medic who responded to the home advised that Chandler, then two weeks old, showed no signs of trauma or seizures but should be seen doctors, according to testimony in court transcripts.
Smith’s family says that doctor visit never happened.
In the new trial hearing, the family’s hired attorney contended that the public defender appointed to the case was ineffective, in that he failed to challenge any medical testimony, according to court documents.
Helen Smith describes her son as jolly and sweet, his only fault being his allure to women, which earned him a “player” reputation and bore him another child with a different woman months before his son’s death. He ran an office cleaning service and generally kept his nose clean, she said.
Danyel Smith is incarcerated at Coffee County Correctional Facility and remains upbeat despite the circumstances, his family said.
“He was a hard-working young man, raised up in the church,” his mother said. “His life has been basically taken away.”
Given the severity of his charge, Smith must wait a standard 14 years, or until 2016, until he’s eligible for parole.
“In 2016, if he doesn’t admit guilt or remorse, he’s not going nowhere,” said rally attendee Anita Gibson, Smith’s aunt. “We refuse to admit guilt or remorse for something he didn’t do. So that’s why we’re out here fighting.”
The family has retained reputable Atlanta defense attorney David Wolfe, who filed the failed motion for a new trial in 2007. Wolfe was out of the office Friday and did not return messages left with a representative.
Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter refrained from commenting on the situation, other than to say the conviction was upheld on appeal by Georgia’s highest court after the “extensive” new trial motion.
The child’s mother, Marsha Collins, could not be reached for comment this week.
Smith’s November 2002 conviction on charges of felony murder, cruelty to children and aggravated battery ran through the family like a shockwave.
Though a Superior Court judge had warned parties to not make outbursts, Smith’s backers erupted at the jury’s decision. Helen Smith passed out and fell to the ground, then shouted accusatory statements at the child’s mother, all before a scuffle ensued outside the courtroom. No one was injured or charged, but deputies had to escort family members and jurors to the parking lot as the trial concluded.
Gibson said the family’s passion has only intensified since the conviction.
“If we can get one jury to hear the full story ... there is no way (he’d be convicted again),” she said. “We are not going to stop until this young man is free, ‘til my nephew comes home to his mother.”