Dark Christianity
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May 2008
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dogemperor [userpic]
And finally, justice for victims of "death by chastening rod"?

Some of you may remember my report of a court case involving coercive "deliverance ministry" group Remnant Fellowship involving yet another sad case of "death by chastening rod"--religiously motivated child abuse that ends in the death or maiming of children (both physically and emotionally) and which is all too common and all too much of a dirty secret in the dominionist community.

And as of the 16th, Josef Smith's ghost may have finally found justice, as the courts ruled his parents guilty of murder.

Court TV reports:

MARIETTA, Ga. — On the day Josef Smith would have celebrated his 12th birthday, a jury convicted his parents of murdering him.

After deliberating for about nine hours, jurors handed down a guilty verdict Friday to Joseph and Sonya Smith for the felony murder of their 8-year-old son on Oct. 8, 2003.

The panel agreed with the prosecution's theory that the Smiths murdered Josef by a combination of asphyxiation and blunt-force trauma to his head as a result of child abuse.

Jurors also found the couple guilty of involuntary manslaughter for the charge of malice murder, four counts of first-degree cruelty to children and three counts of aggravated assault and one count of false imprisonment.

Prosecutor Eleanor Dixon said she was pleased that the jury "handed down justice for little Josef" on his birthday.

"I just hope he is up there right now looking down and saying 'I'm OK, this was the right thing,'" the prosecutor said after the verdict.

The felony murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison with eligibility of parole after 30 years.

One of the sicker comments made by the Smiths' attorney after the verdict was yet another case of blaming the victim (which, sadly, also occured during his life--his parents claimed he was demon possessed and was making death threats against them)--a tactic all too common in circles where abusive dominionist groups end up the successful target of lawsuits by victims or the state:
Prosecutors argued that Josef Smith was the victim of chronic child abuse at the hands of his parents, and that abuse became fatal when the couple forced the 8-year-old into a three by two foot wooden box, closed the lid and tied it shut with extension cords.

A short time later, when Josef's brother discovered he wasn't breathing, they took him to the hospital. He died a day later after doctors determined he was brain dead.

After the verdict the Smiths' attorney, Manubir "Manny" Arora, labeled the panel's decision "a compromised verdict that gave the Smiths life."

"The jury couldn't get past the autopsy pictures of the child that were shown to them, and the jurors wanted to hold someone accountable for it," Arora said.

Arora argued that Josef Smith wasn't murdered, but instead died as the result of a fatal bacterial infection that made its way into the boy's blood system brought on by the dermatitis eczema.

According to the article, there is a chance that upon final sentencing (which they will be ineligible for until at least 27 years from now) the courts could rule that there could be a longer period the parents are ineligible for parole and that the involuntary manslaughter convictions could be held to be consecutively served with the murder convictions--which would in fact mean they would be in prison even longer.

This actually sets a very powerful precedent--to my knowledge, this is the first time a parent has actually been convicted of murder for religiously motivated child abuse (typically, if these cases make it to trial at all, the parents are simply convicted of child abuse or involuntary manslaughter).

At least one group of walkaways and survivors of Remnant Fellowship are stating this should be a lesson that religiously motivated child abuse is not acceptable, per the Tennessean newspaper:
MARIETTA, Ga. — Former members of a Brentwood-based church said they hoped Friday's conviction of Georgia couple in the death of their 8-year-old son would prompt the church and its followers to re-examine their child discipline teachings.

Joseph and Sonya Smith were found guilty of one count each of felony murder and involuntary manslaughter. They were remote members of Remnant Fellowship Church, which has Web-based outposts across the nation and was funding the couple's defense.

The jury also convicted them of four counts of cruelty to children, three counts of aggravated assault, one count of reckless conduct and one count of false imprisonment in the death of their son Josef in 2003.

"I think (the Smiths) are the sacrificial lamb," said Oklahoma mother Susan Warren, who joined a support group for former members after her grown daughter, Cary, left home and joined the church. "Maybe it will shock some people in the church. Maybe things will change. They're playing with people's lives when they discipline that way."

The fellowship grew out of church leader Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program she created in 1986.

"The Smiths are innocent and so we will appeal this and fight for justice for the Smith family. This case is not over," said a statement released on behalf of Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship Church members.

Defense attorney Manubir Singh Arora said he spoke briefly with the Smiths before they were taken into custody.

"I think it's going to take them a while to let it all soak in. I think they're a little stunned.

"I'm incredibly disappointed," Arora said. "I never in my wildest dreams expected to lose on any of the four murder counts."

Case spotlighted church

The church advocates strict discipline for children, including corporal punishment. Shamblin told The Tennessean earlier this month that she believed the Smiths were innocent and that media coverage since their arrest has distorted the church's teachings on child discipline.

Investigators in the case raided the Weigh Down program's Franklin headquarters in 2004. No one else, however, was charged in connection with the boy's death. Officers testified that they never established a solid link between the church and the boy's death.

Some former members who have called the church a "cult" watched trial coverage closely .

"My prayer was that the truth came out and I hope the truth did come out," former member Steve Miozzi said Friday.

In a Marietta, Ga. courtroom Friday morning, the Smiths were motionless as Cobb County Deputy Clerk Tricia Crawford read the verdicts, although Sonya Smith closed her eyes after the jury found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter and murder.

The crowd in the courtroom was silent after Judge James Bodiford threatened to respond to any outbursts with 20 days in the county jail.

The Smiths were found not guilty of additional, separate counts of murder, felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless conduct, false imprisonment and cruelty to children. Sentencing is March 27.

"I'm pleased with the verdict. I'm pleased these two defendants will not get away with this brutal abuse," prosecutor Eleanor Dixon said.

Several members of the church attended the court session but declined to comment.

Cause of death disputed

Prosecutors charged that Josef Smith was beaten, locked inside a wooden box and forced to stay in a closet for hours at a time before he died in October 2003.

Defense attorneys contended that Josef did not die from the injuries, and the county medical examiner failed to perform crucial tests that would have found the actual cause of his death.

A police witness said Josef Smith's father told officers his 8-year-old son frequently needed discipline because the child carved death threats on the walls, keeping the family awake at night, and claimed he was a foot soldier for the devil.

But prosecutors said the parents met that behavior with a tragic overreaction that led to the boy's death, his body full of bruises and other injuries, after an October 2003 prayer session.

The verdict came on what would have been Josef Smith's 12th birthday.

Adam Brooks, a Philadelphia psychologist who attended the church for several months with his wife before leaving and creating a support group for former members, said he watched the trial closely.

"It's a sad outcome, regardless of which side of the fence one is on regarding Remnant Fellowship, just to realize fundamentally what this is really about is the life of one little boy," he said.

Hopefully little Josef Smith will not be the first to see justice--hopefully one day *everyone* who has been the victim of religiously-motivated child abuse will someday see justice. (In that light, I strongly encourage each and every reader of this community to please support the work of the Safe Passage Foundation, which to my knowledge is the ONLY group that is specifically working to prevent religiously-motivated child abuse and support the rights of child walkaways from coercive religious groups--including coercive dominionist churches.)