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Name: Smith v. Mitchell
Case #: 04-55831
Court: US Court of Appeals
District 9 Cir
Opinion Date: 02/09/2006

Habeas relief was available where the evidence introduced at trial did not support the defendant’s conviction for causing the death of her grandson under the prosecution theory of shaken baby syndrome. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of habeas relief after the California appellate courts affirmed the defendant’s conviction under Penal Code section 273ab. The court found that the evidence produced at trial was constitutionally insufficient under Jackson v. Virginia (1979) 443 U.S. 307, because no rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The court noted that no evidence showed that the grandmother had a history of abusing the child or that she had a motive to abuse the child, and that a constitutionally permissible finding of guilt would have to rest on the expert testimony. Although the prosecution experts testified that shaking caused the baby’s death, they conceded that nearly all the usual indicators of shaking were not present in this case, and instead they theorized that a traumatic brain stem injury caused the baby’s death, a conclusion they reached due to the absence of evidence on the brain itself regarding the cause of death. Thus, as the defense expert pointed out, death might or might not have been caused by the means suggested by the prosecution; there was simply no evidence one way or the other. Such evidence is “simply not the stuff from which guilt beyond a reasonable doubt can be established.”