Gwinnett father who claims innocence in baby’s death appeals to state high court

Lawyers who contend a man was wrongly convicted of murder almost two decades ago are taking his case to the state’s highest court.

The attorneys for the Southern Center for Human Rights are appealing a decision last month by a Gwinnett County judge who rejected Danyel Smith’s bid for a new trial. A number of the nation’s Innocence Projects and several medical experts have recently filed their own legal briefs asking the Georgia Supreme Court to hear Smith’s case.

The appeal to the state Supreme Court is discretionary, meaning the justices can vote to hear the case or not hear the case.

Smith has been serving a life sentence since he was convicted of the May 6, 2002 “shaken baby” death of his 2-month-old son, Chandler.

At trial, a Gwinnett medical examiner, citing a skull fracture, retinal hemorrhaging and wrist fractures, called Chandler’s death “classic and in some cases virtually exclusive for violent shaking.”

But Dr. Saadi Ghatan, a preeminent pediatric neurologist from New York, has submitted sworn testimony on Smith’s behalf concluding Chandler died of natural causes, not violent shaking. Advancements in medical diagnostics not available two decades ago show that complications from the child’s premature death and seizures contributed to his death, Ghatan said.

A primary reason behind the dismissal of Smith’s bid for a new trial was a finding that the medical evidence is being presented now — and interpretations of its significance — could have been raised by Smith’s trial lawyers years ago.

But in a court filing, six doctors — experts in pediatric neurosurgery, child abuse pediatrics and neuroradiology — said the new analysis of Chandler’s medical records “reflects modern scientific understandings that differ dramatically from medical consensus at the time of defendant’s trial in 2003.”

Any medical expert, the doctors said, “would have lacked necessary tools and knowledge to present the same analysis” two decades ago.

Separately, 17 attorneys told the Supreme Court that Smith has presented enough compelling evidence to warrant a hearing on his claims.

Denying such a hearing “undermines confidence in our judicial system to evaluate new claims of new evidence and contravenes black letter law in Georgia regarding the availability of such a hearing when the evidence supports it,” said the lawyers. The attorneys include directors of Innocence Projects in New Orleans, West Virginia, Texas, Mississippi and Michigan.

In its filing, the Gwinnett District Attorney’s Office asked the court to deny Smith’s most recent appeal.

While Smith’s lawyers contend Chandler’s death was wrongly attributed to the symptoms for “shaken baby syndrome,” Chandler was also killed by “blunt force trauma” with other indications of abuse, the DA’s Office said. Also, Chandler’s pediatrician had found the child “to be in good health only hours before the baby was found unresponsive after being alone with (Smith).”