HBOMax ‘The Way Down’ documentary highlights Cobb murder case

Courtesy of HBO Max
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Courtesy of HBO Max

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.

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Marietta, GA -- Sonya Smith (L) and husband Joseph Smith (R) share a quick kiss as the verdicts were read in their murder trial. The jury convicted the Cobb parents on one count each of felony murder in the death of their 8-year-old son Josef. The Mableton couple displayed little emotion as the verdict was read before a Cobb County courtroom packed with supporters from a Tennessee church who paid for the Smiths' legal defense. In addition to the felony murder charge, the jury found the couple guilty on four counts each of cruelty to children in the first degree, three counts each of aggravated assault and one count each of false imprisonment and involuntary manslaughter. (Calvin Cruce / AJC staff)

Credit: AJC

Marietta, GA -- Sonya Smith (L) and husband Joseph Smith (R) share a quick kiss as the verdicts were read in their murder trial. The jury convicted the Cobb parents  on one count each of felony murder in the death of their 8-year-old son Josef. The Mableton couple displayed little emotion as the verdict was read before a Cobb County courtroom packed with supporters from a Tennessee church who paid for the Smiths' legal defense. In addition to the felony murder charge, the jury found the couple guilty on four counts each of cruelty to children in the first degree, three counts each of aggravated assault and one count each of false imprisonment and involuntary manslaughter. (Calvin Cruce / AJC staff)
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Marietta, GA -- Sonya Smith (L) and husband Joseph Smith (R) share a quick kiss as the verdicts were read in their murder trial. The jury convicted the Cobb parents on one count each of felony murder in the death of their 8-year-old son Josef. The Mableton couple displayed little emotion as the verdict was read before a Cobb County courtroom packed with supporters from a Tennessee church who paid for the Smiths' legal defense. In addition to the felony murder charge, the jury found the couple guilty on four counts each of cruelty to children in the first degree, three counts each of aggravated assault and one count each of false imprisonment and involuntary manslaughter. (Calvin Cruce / AJC staff)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

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.

ExploreThe list: Georgia cases featured on true-crime shows and podcasts

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.”

ExploreSonya and Joseph Smith case: Georgia Supreme Court upholds Cobb murder convictions - 2010

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