Thursday, February 19, 2009
Court Upholds Parole Denial for Woman Who Murdered Toddler
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday upheld Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finding that a mother who beat her 2-year-old daughter to death after the child fed her pancake to her pet duck was still not suitable for parole 28 years after the murder.
A divided panel of Div. Six reversed San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jac A. Crawford’s grant of habeas corpus relief to Linda Lee Smith, concluding in an unpublished decision that the aggravating circumstances of the child’s death and Smith’s failure to take responsibility for her conduct supported the governor’s finding that Smith continued to pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released.
Smith was convicted by a jury of second degree murder in 1980. The California Supreme Court subsequently reversed her conviction due to an instructional error, but she was again convicted on retrial.
According to the Supreme Court, Smith became angry when her daughter Amy refused to sit on the couch instead of the floor to eat a snack. Smith then took Amy into a bedroom, spanked her, and slapped her in the face.
David Foster, who lived with Smith and her two children, apparently joined Smith in the bedroom.
Smith’s other daughter, Bethany, age 31/2, testified that both Smith and Foster struck Amy with their hands and a paddle, and also bit the child.
Eventually, Amy went into respiratory arrest and Smith and Foster took her to the hospital where Smith admitted that she had beaten her daughter “too hard,” but denied Foster’s involvement.
Amy died from a severe head injury which, doctors opined, occurred less than an hour before the child was brought to the hospital. She also manifested injuries that were consistent with compressive force caused by numerous blows by hands, fists, and a paddle.
Smith claimed that Foster had been alone with Amy in the bedroom when Amy was injured and that she was afraid that if she interfered she would become the object of Foster’s attack.
She asserted that Foster had objected to taking the child to the hospital because he was concerned about possible ramifications for his parole status, so she agreed to take all responsibility for Amy’s injuries at the hospital.
Following retrial on remand from the Supreme Court, a jury again convicted Smith of second degree murder. She was sentenced to prison for a term of 15 years to life.
At subsequent parole hearings, Smith continued to deny her involvement in the attack on Amy, but accepted responsibility for Amy’s death because she did not protect the child from Foster.
Smith also claimed that she had falsely confessed to police following her arrest—which was the basis for the Supreme Court’s statement of facts portraying her as the initiator and chief perpetrator of the attack on Amy—because she had told Foster that she would take the blame and because she was trying to protect her children.
Prior to Smith’s conviction, she had no documented history of violent behavior, and no criminal record. Since her incarceration, she has had no incidents of discipline, has earned a college degree and begun pursuing a master’s degree in divinity, and availed herself of self-help and therapy sessions.
On seven separate occasions, the Board of Parole Hearings has decided that Smith should be granted parole, but each time, the governor has reversed the board’s decision.
Nature and Circumstances
In justification of the most recent reversal, Schwarzenegger said the nature and circumstances of Amy’s death and Smith’s refusal to acknowledge her participation in the beating outweighed the factors in favor of Smith’s parole suitability.
Smith then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the San Luis Obispo Superior Court, which Crawford granted.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Kenneth R. Yegan noted that the governor relied on similar grounds to those he had relied on in In re Shaputis (2008) 44 Cal.4th 1241—which involved a defendant who was convicted of murdering his wife with a single gunshot to the neck—in reversing the board’s decision, and that the California Supreme Court had upheld the governor’s decision in Shaputis.
Like the defendant in Shaputis, who maintained that his wife’s death was an accident, Yegan reasoned that Smith had never taken responsibility for Amy’s death by continuing to characterize herself as a mere bystander to a beating perpetrated by Foster alone.
“The gravity of respondent’s commitment offense has continuing predictive value as to current dangerousness in view of her lack of insight into her behavior and refusal to accept responsibility for her personal participation in the beating of Amy,” Yegan wrote.
Justice Paul H. Coffee joined Yegan in his opinion, but Justice Steven Z. Perren dissented.
Despite the heinousness of Amy’s murder, Perren asserted, the offense was both temporally remote and mitigated by circumstances indicating the conduct is unlikely to recur in light of the “overwhelming” evidence of Smith’s rehabilitation. The justice noted that every mental health professional and counselor who has met with Smith since 1986 had concluded she had accepted responsibility for her crime.
Perren also noted that Bethany had substantiated Smith’s claim that she was not the aggressor in the attack on Amy by testifying before the parole board that her mother did not administer any blows to her sister in concluding that the evidence did not support the governor’s finding that Smith continued to pose a threat to society.
Blanca F. Young and Hailyn J. Chen of Munger Tolles & Olson LLP represented Smith, while Deputy Attorney General Kim Aarons represented the state.
The case is In re Smith, B207324.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company