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‘I Did Not Shake My Son’: Is a Father Serving Life for a Crime That Never Occurred?

Expert says trauma from childbirth, not shaking, led to the death of Danyel Smith’s two-month-old child.

Danyel Smith’s trial didn’t take long. The prosecution wrapped up its case in a little over a day, and the defense in less than three hours. Prosecutors in Gwinnett County, Georgia, alleged that on April 29, 2002, Smith had shaken his two-month-old son, Chandler, who then died from his injuries days later. Prosecutors claimed Chandler showed tell-tale signs of the dubious medical diagnosis “shaken baby syndrome.”

On the stand, Smith told the jury that he was innocent and that his son had stopped breathing during a car ride. He said he’d done all he could to try and save his baby.

“I did not beat my son,” he testified. “I did not shake my son.”

On Nov. 21, 2003, Smith was convicted of felony murder, cruelty to children, and aggravated battery. The judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Almost two decades later, Smith still maintains his innocence, and his attorneys say that trauma sustained during childbirth led to Chandler’s death. Last month, Smith’s family members held a protest in support of him outside the courthouse. Attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights began representing Smith last year, after the filmmaker Asher Levinthal, who is working on a documentary about shaken baby syndrome, asked them to look into the case.

In May, after years of setbacks and delays, Smith’s case finally inched forward when the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to consider a motion arguing that the trial court erred when it sided with prosecutors and denied Smith’s request for a new trial without holding an evidentiary hearing.

Even though Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson ran on a platform promising criminal justice reform, court records show that prosecutors in her office have consistently opposed Smith’s efforts to prove his innocence.

“As for the district attorney, I had had great hopes for her coming into Gwinnett County,” Smith’s fiancée, LaTasha Pyatt, told The Appeal. “We really were expecting her to do her job.”

Over the past 20 years, the scientific and legal communities’ understanding of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) has dramatically changed, leading to a growing number of exonerations. Just last year, there were five exonerations involving cases of alleged SBS, bringing the known number of SBS wrongful convictions to 26 since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. All but six of these exonerations occurred after Smith’s conviction. Among the exonerated, some of the true causes of death have been revealed to be sickle cell anemia, stroke, and pneumonia.

In Smith’s case, trauma sustained during childbirth, not abuse, led to Chandler’s death, according to his attorneys.

“These people don’t know me to think that I have hurt my son. That has been the hardest burden that I have had to live with the past 20 years,” Smith said in a statement sent via his attorneys to The Appeal. “Being accused of something like this and losing my son.”

On the day Chandler collapsed, his mother and Smith took him to his eight-week wellness visit at the pediatrician and ran errands. Then Chandler’s mother went to an appointment to apply for food assistance. The baby, who appeared to be sleeping, stayed home with Smith.

About 20 minutes after she left, she called Smith and asked him to come meet her and bring the baby; she would not be approved for benefits unless Chandler was present.

On their way to the office building, Smith saw that Chandler appeared to not be breathing. He was on the phone with the baby’s mother and told her something was wrong, according to their trial testimony.

Smith says he pulled over to the side of the road, performed CPR, and then drove to the office building where Chandler’s mother was waiting. He carried the baby out of the car and Chandler’s mother called 911. Two bystanders attempted to perform CPR before paramedics arrived and took Chandler to the hospital.

Almost immediately, the treating physicians concluded that Chandler had been abused. On May 1, 2002, police arrested Smith at the hospital. Five days later, Chandler was taken off life support and died.

At the time, Smith was a father of three, including Chandler, and had never been accused of child abuse, according to his attorneys.

“My dad didn’t raise me, that motivated me even more to be there for my kids,” Smith said in a statement to The Appeal. “That has been robbed from me.”

At Smith’s trial, the prosecution alleged that Chandler’s injuries were caused by shaking with impact.

“We have a collection of findings here that are classic and in some cases virtually exclusive for violent shaking,” the county medical examiner testified. A pediatric neurosurgeon told the jury, “Unless somebody could tell me something else was going on with this child … I think he was a shaken baby. I’ll be happy if somebody can tell me something else.”

In the decades since Smith’s trial, exonerations and studies have shown that the triad of symptoms associated with SBS—subdural hemorrhage, retinal hemorrhage, and brain swelling—can have a number of other explanations, such as short-distance falls, trauma sustained during childbirth, or illness. In a case in New Jersey earlier this year, a judge ruled that the prosecutors could not bring in testimony of SBS in their case against a father accused of shaking his son. SBS, the judge wrote in his ruling, “lacks scientific grounding” and is “akin to ‘junk science.’”

The evidence in Chandler’s case suggests birth trauma—not shaking—led to his death, according to Dr. Saadi Ghatan, the director of Mount Sinai Health System’s pediatric neurosurgery program. Ghatan, who is working on the case pro bono, reviewed Chandler’s brain scans and medical records, along with the mother’s medical records related to her pregnancy and delivery.

Chandler was born premature, at 35 weeks, by an emergency cesarean. His head was delivered by vacuum extraction, whereby a suction device was placed on his head, according to Chandler’s mother’s medical records. Ghatan noted in his affidavit that vacuum extraction can cause a skull fracture.

Chandler weighed less than five pounds when he was born and was sent to the neonatal intensive care unit. A nurse documented that his head was swollen, but no follow-up was conducted and he was discharged about a week after his birth.

When he was about a month old, Chandler’s mother called 911 because she feared he was having a seizure, but the paramedics who arrived dismissed her concerns. A seizure, they said, would mean he was jerking around, which he wasn’t. But, according to Ghatan, a seizure in an infant can also present as the baby “zoning out or being startled.”

Chandler’s death “was not the result of parental abuse or mistreatment, nor was his death caused intentionally by anyone,” Ghatan wrote in his affidavit. His death “began with his early and difficult birth.”

In May, protesters gathered outside the courthouse in Gwinnett County to protest what they say is Danyel Smith’s wrongful conviction. Courtesy of Southern Center for Human Rights

In March, less than a month before Ghatan was set to testify at an evidentiary hearing, the trial court granted the prosecutor’s request to dismiss Smith’s motion for a new trial.

The prosecutor argued in his legal filings that Smith’s evidence is not new and, therefore, should not be heard by the court. He even opposed Smith’s motion to appear in civilian clothes at his evidentiary hearing—which was ultimately canceled, at the prosecutor’s request.

District Attorney Austin-Gatson declined to answer The Appeal’s questions about Smith’s case.

“The prosecution has decided to oppose our ability to even present evidence so far,” Mark Loudon-Brown, one of Smith’s attorneys, told The Appeal. “If they wanted to reverse their position and agree with us that he’s entitled to a new trial, they could do that today.”

Smith’s legal team told The Appeal that they asked Austin-Gatson’s conviction integrity unit (CIU) to investigate his case on March 22, 2021—the same month Austin-Gatson launched the unit. Three days later, a CIU attorney emailed Loudon-Brown and said she would be looking into the case. More than a year later, however, Smith’s legal team says they’re still waiting for the unit to complete its review. Austin-Gatson created the unit because she is “a strong advocate for justice and fairness,” the DA’s website says.

“Any cases within our CIU for investigation will not be subject to discussions with the media,” Austin-Gatson wrote in an email to The Appeal. “We appreciate your interest in this matter, but we will not be commenting on it.”

Pyatt, Smith’s fiancée, told The Appeal she doesn’t understand why Austin-Gatson wouldn’t move faster in this instance.

“If she started this integrity unit to truly right the wrongs in Gwinnett County, I don’t know a better case than Danyel’s case to start with,” she said.

Unless the prosecutor’s office changes course, Smith’s fate lies with the Georgia Supreme Court. The path to exoneration through the judiciary is a circuitous one—the state’s highest court can order the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing, which could lead the judge to order a new trial. If that happens, the prosecutors can either start preparing for the new trial or drop all charges.

Smith and his supporters say they’ve already waited far too long for Smith to be released from prison for a crime he did not commit. At the family’s protest last month, they chanted, “No justice, no peace,” and held home-made signs. “Please give my innocent son his life back,” read a hand-written sign held by Smith’s mother.

“My freedom has been taken from me,” Smith said in a statement to The Appeal. “I want the State of Georgia to undo this wrong and make it right. Period.”