Gwinnett man refuses to exchange his freedom for guilty plea

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

A Gwinnett County man who has spent two decades in prison for a crime he insists he did not commit has turned down the chance to be set free, a recently filed court motion said.

Danyel Smith was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 for the shaken-baby murder of his 2-month old son Chandler. Two years ago, an eminent pediatric neurologist from New York reviewed Chandler’s medical records and determined he died from natural causes brought on by seizures and his premature birth, not violent shaking.

Smith, who awaits a hearing on his motion for a new trial, was offered a deal earlier this year by Gwinnett prosecutors: plead guilty to the crime in exchange for a sentence of time-served, meaning he would be released from prison, the motion said. It noted that Smith “refused to accept this offer and admit to something he did not do.”

The rejection was disclosed in a court motion filed Monday and which seeks to recuse the Gwinnett District Attorney’s Office from any further involvement in the case. It contends Assistant DA Christopher Deneve improperly contacted Smith’s fiancée, LaTasha Pyatt, and told her that the office’s plea offer “was very fair and was something that Mr. Smith should consider.”

The motion also said when Pyatt asked if she could bring Smith’s lawyers to the meeting, she was told she could not. At the meeting, Deneve told Pyatt that Smith’s lawyers were not effectively representing him and had not adequately conveyed the plea offer to Smith, the motion said, calling such statements “misinformation.”

Credit: Pete Corson

Credit: Pete Corson

Deneve also told Pyatt that if the judge overseeing the case declines to grant a new trial to Smith, 47, that would be a ruling that could not be appealed, the motion said, adding, “This was false and Mr. Deneve knew it.”

Deneve, with the consent of DA Patsy Austin-Gatson, violated legal ethics rules by circumventing Smith’s lawyers and talking to Pyatt, the motion said.

In the filing, Smith’s attorneys, Mark Loudon-Brown, Whitney Knox Lee and Christine Koehler, said they sought the advice of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys about what had happened. “The overwhelming response has been outrage that a prosecutor’s office would resort to such a tactic,” the motion said.

In a response filed Wednesday, Deneve said the recusal motion should be denied and the state disputes much of what was represented in Smith’s motion. The DA’s office was within its rights to have the meeting with Pyatt because she is a potential witness for the state in the case, he wrote. Deneve attached a statement Pyatt gave when advocating for Smith’s parole in 2016 in which she wrote Smith was “remorseful” over “the actions in his past.”

The response said the meeting was set up to have a “fruitful discussion” with her.

“The state attempted to show Ms. Pyatt that the state’s position was fundamentally fair to the defendant and that her research and materials on the ‘science’ of the case were unsupported and based on discredited, misleading misinformation,” Deneve wrote. He noted that when Pyatt expressed a desire to end the meeting “the state then scrupulously honored her request ... and politely showed her out.”