The state Supreme Court on Monday upheld the murder conviction of a Clayton County caregiver who locked a mentally disabled veteran out of her house in January 2014 and watched television inside while he froze to death.
The frozen body of Arthur Pelham, 66, was found outside the woman’s locked back door.
Dale El Smith, 74, argued in her appeal that she had sent Pelham outside to catch a bus to an adult daycare center that day and that she did not know the center had closed because of freezing temperatures.
“The evidence at trial showed that Smith was the primary caregiver for Pelham; that the temperatures were freezing outside; that she refused to allow Pelham back into the house; that she therefore deprived him of shelter and sustenance throughout the day; and that he died as a result of the deprivation of shelter,” wrote Justice Britt Grant in upholding Smith’s conviction.
Smith was under contract with the Veterans Administration to provide care for Pelham, and she also received Pelham’s Social Security payments, the court record shows. The judge noted a long series of disturbing facts about Smith’s operation, in which she kept Pelham and other disabled adults in her home; they all lived downstairs, while Smith lived upstairs:
- Multiple witnesses testified that residents of Smith’s home often were found wandering around the neighborhood improperly dressed for the temperatures.
- One witness saw Pelham knocking on Smith’s door asking for food. Once she saw Pelham lying in the street in the middle of the night.
- Another neighbor testified seeing Pelham miles from home standing on the side of the road after dark.
- A third neighbor testified she saw Pelham wandering in the street with no water when the temperature was about 95 degrees.
- Multiple police officers also testified. One said he found Pelham walking along a highway in the blistering heat, disoriented and unsteady.
- Another, who responded to a 911 call, met Pelham on the street outside Smith’s house. Inside, he discovered dog and human feces on the floor and spoiled food in the refrigerator. He also noted there was no heat in the downstairs area where residents lived.
- In addition, Waffle House employees placed multiple 911 calls regarding Pelham because he often was at the restaurant unsupervised for extended periods. And the bus driver who provided transportation to and from the adult daycare center observed that Pelham was the only client who waited alone outside his residence, and he did so in all types of weather.
The court noted that Smith, who was sentenced to life in prison, had signed a daycare center form acknowledging that the center would close in the event of bad weather. It also said that Pelham was unable to get back into the house because neither he nor any other resident of the house was ever given a key.
According to AJC reports, Smith watched television for 10 hours while Pelham was outside freezing to death. Temperatures that day were in the 20s.
Justice Grant wrote that a neighbor had sent her son outside to check on the family dog. “(The son) discovered Pelham collapsed, lying face down outside Smith’s back door. (He) called to his mother, who ran to grab a jacket while her son summoned help. Although Smith came outside and saw Pelham, she went back into the house without rendering any aid to Pelham or asking anyone to call for help.”
EMTs said they found Pelham soaked in urine. They took him to a local hospital, where doctors were unable to revive him.