The Cobb County prosecutor sang “Happy Birthday” to Josef Smith during her closing arguments at the 2007 murder trial of the slain child’s parents.
Two days later, on what would have been Josef’s 12th birthday, Joseph and Sonya Smith were convicted of beating their son so badly they killed him. Their murder case is featured prominently on the “The Way Down,” a new HBO documentary.
The show focuses on Gwen Shamblin Lara who rose to fame as a faith-based weight-loss guru and founded the Remnant Fellowship Church in 1999 in Franklin, Tennessee. The church encouraged its congregation to use corporal punishment and was accused of operating like a cult that harassed and abused its members.
Many members of Remnant Fellowship packed the Cobb County courtroom in support of Joseph and Sonya Smith when the guilty verdicts were returned against them. Church members and supporters also helped pay for the couple’s legal defense.
The Smiths’ defense attorney had argued that Josef died of an infection brought on by eczema. But prosecutors said the couple beat their then 8-year-old son to death with a flexible, foot-long glue stick.
According to testimony, when Josef had disrupted a church service web cast the family was watching on the computer, Joseph Smith struck him. Sonya Smith later continued to beat him, drawing blood.
Josef was then ordered to climb into a wooden box, even though he complained he could not breathe. When he was removed, he was unresponsive. He was pronounced dead the following day.
The Smiths were convicted of felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, first-degree cruelty to children, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and reckless conduct. They are currently serving life sentences in prison.
“I feel like justice has been done,” then-Cobb prosecutor Eleanor Dixon, who sang “Happy Birthday” to Josef, said after the jury returned its verdicts. “I feel like the citizens have said we don’t want to stand for this abuse.”
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