Family rallies for Gwinnett father seeking exoneration in baby’s death

Helen Smith, the mother of Danyel Smith, pointed to the Court as she finished her speech during the "Justice for Danyel Smith" rally outside of the Gwinnett Justice Administration Center on Thursday, May 5th, 2022. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

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Helen Smith, the mother of Danyel Smith, pointed to the Court as she finished her speech during the "Justice for Danyel Smith" rally outside of the Gwinnett Justice Administration Center on Thursday, May 5th, 2022. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

A day before the 20-year anniversary of 2-month-old Chandler Smith’s death, about a dozen people rallied Thursday outside the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center calling on District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson to vacate the murder conviction of the baby’s father.

“I’m counting on you, Ms. Gatson,” said Helen Smith, whose son Danyel has been imprisoned since a jury in 2003 convicted him of killing Chandler by shaking and abuse. “Twenty years, an innocent man in jail. Where is your conscience? Where is your soul? Where is your humanity?”

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

Lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights have asked the Georgia Supreme Court to hear Smith’s case after a Gwinnett County judge rejected his bid for a new trial.

Austin-Gatson’s conviction integrity unit is looking into the case, said Mark Loudon-Brown, a Southern Center attorney, but the district attorney’s appellate unit opposed the new trial.

Austin-Gatson’s office did not reply to a message Thursday seeking comment.

About two dozen lawyers and medical experts, including a preeminent pediatric neurologist and directors of five Innocence Projects, have advocated for a new hearing in the case, based on new science that points to natural causes for Chandler’s death. Chandler was born prematurely and had health issues including seizures, relatives and attorneys said.

Recent advances in diagnostics led doctors to reach different conclusions about Chandler’s death than they would have 20 years ago, experts said.

Danyel Smith was the last person alone with Chandler, and hours before the baby’s death, a pediatrician pronounced him in good health, the Gwinnett district attorney’s office said. “Blunt force trauma” contributed to Chandler’s death and there were other signs of abuse, prosecutors said.

Most of those present Thursday were Danyel Smith’s relatives, including his mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, adult sons and fiancé, LaTasha Pyatt.

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Danzel Smith (20), the son of Danyel Smith, gives a speech during the "Justice for Danyel Smith" rally outside the Gwinnett Justice Administration Center on Thursday, May 5th, 2022. "It's been 20 years without birthdays, Christmas, and graduations without him, and I miss him," Smith said. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Danzel Smith (20), the son of Danyel Smith, gives a speech during the "Justice for Danyel Smith" rally outside the Gwinnett Justice Administration Center on Thursday, May 5th, 2022. "It's been 20 years without birthdays, Christmas, and graduations without him, and I miss him," Smith said. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
Danzel Smith (20), the son of Danyel Smith, gives a speech during the "Justice for Danyel Smith" rally outside the Gwinnett Justice Administration Center on Thursday, May 5th, 2022. "It's been 20 years without birthdays, Christmas, and graduations without him, and I miss him," Smith said. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Danyel Smith, now 46, is currently incarcerated in the Dooley State Prison in Unadilla, serving a life sentence. Parole bids have been repeatedly rejected, his family said.

Pyatt, 47, met him seven years ago through a mutual friend. She spent a whole day going through his case file and concluded he was innocent.

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She and other supporters believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of people have been wrongfully convicted of “shaken baby” deaths based on outdated science.

“Patsy Austin-Gatson took this office to make the changes in Gwinnett County,” Pyatt said. “To rewrite the wrongs is why she started this integrity unit. We’re calling on her to allow her integrity unit to do the investigating, or whatever it is that we already haven’t done, and realize that Gwinnett got it wrong. They made a mistake and mistakes happen. Wrongful convictions happen all the time. But the longer Danyel stays in that prison, we won’t have no peace.”