Parents charged in child’s death go on trial Monday

Associated Press/February 5, 2007
By Daniel Yee

Atlanta - A man and woman accused of killing their 8-year-old son — in a case that led authorities to look into the practices of a Tennessee church — is expected to begin Monday in a suburban Atlanta courtroom.

Joseph and Sonya Smith have been charged with murder in the October 2003 death of their son, Josef. They are accused of confining him and fatally beating him, according to a Cobb County Superior Court indictment.

Jury selection is expected to begin Monday in Marietta, Ga., 17 miles northwest of Atlanta.

The Mableton, Ga., couple has been charged with four counts of murder, five counts of first-degree cruelty to children, three counts of aggravated assault and two counts of false imprisonment, according to a 14-count indictment issued in June.

The Smiths are members of the Franklin, Tenn.-based Remnant Fellowship Church, which grew out of church leader Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program she created in 1986. Authorities raided the church in June 2004 as part of the investigation of Josef Smith's death.

Although Shamblin's office did not immediately return a phone message for comment Friday, she said in an interview in July 2004 that the boy's death was accidental and that the Smiths were being abused by law enforcement, anti-cult experts and the media.

"It's an unfortunate taking advantage of the tragic death of a child so they can whip Remnant Fellowship and Gwen Shamblin," Shamblin told The Associated Press in the 2004 interview.

On Oct. 8, 2003, police and emergency medical personnel went to the couple's home to respond to a report of an unresponsive 8-year-old child — Josef Smith — who later died at a children's hospital, according to a criminal warrant filed in the case.

Authorities found "an enormous amount of different injuries on the back side" of the child's body and "a recent bruising and swelling to the head and shoulder area," the warrant said.

Investigators in the warrant said the child had been struck with a glue stick "causing blood to show through the 8-year-old's underwear" and that he had been locked in a closet and made to pray to a picture of Jesus on the closet's ceiling. They said in the warrant that despite acknowledging the bloodied underwear, the Smiths had deprived the child of medical care.

District Attorney Pat Head's office declined to comment Friday on the upcoming trial. Defense attorneys John Hesmer and Manubir Singh Arora did not immediately return phone messages for comment Sunday.

Former Remnant members have suggested to investigators and reporters that church teachings on discipline include corporal punishment.

Shamblin previously said the church leaves discipline to parents but believes in spankings as a last report. She also said critics fooled former Remnant members into believing they were part of a cult.

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