In her column yesterday for Slate Magazine, Emily Bazelon attacked the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Cavazos v. Smith, stating that the opinion “will easily be the most vindictive of the term.”

The facts of the case are tragic. As described by Bazelon:

In 1996, when he was seven weeks old, Etzel Glass died during the night. His mother, Tomeka, had put him to sleep on a sofa in a room with Shirley Ree Smith, Etzel’s grandmother. Smith was helping Tomeka raise Etzel and two other children, who were also sleeping in the room with her. There was no indication that she’d been anything but loving toward the kids at any time. When Smith woke up and found Etzel limp, she ran with him to his mother’s room next door, saying she thought he’d fallen off the sofa. At first, the doctors who examined Etzel said he’d died of sudden infant death syndrome-no one’s fault. But the coroner found the cause of death to be shaken-baby syndrome, and prosecutors decided that Shirley Ree Smith had done the shaking.

Smith was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life. On appeal, the California courts determined that there was a reasonable basis for the jury’s finding of guilt, and upheld her conviction. Smith then sought relief from the federal courts, despite the fact that federal law clearly bars federal courts from overturning a state court decision rejecting a sufficiency of the evidence challenge unless the state court decision is “objectively unreasonable.” Faced with a heartrending story, however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided to ignore the law and substitute its own judgment for that of the jury and state courts.

Bazelon does not disagree with this legal assessment. As she notes:

AEDPA [the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act] tells federal courts that they can’t overturn state courts except in a narrow set of circumstances: If a conviction is contrary to or unreasonably applies clearly established federal law, or if it’s based on an unreasonable determination of the facts. AEDPA is a straitjacket. The federal courts are supposed to put it on and quit worrying about whether innocent people have been put in prison.

A panel of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit refused to do that. They looked at the medical testimony against Shirley Ree Smith and how badly it holds up to the light of current knowledge, and they said that Smith had spent enough years in prison.

Nevertheless, Bazelon faults the Supreme Court for choosing to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision:

after twice sending the 9th Circuit pointed warnings about this case, the Supreme Court reversed the circuit court’s decision. The majority’s brief and unsigned opinion concedes that “doubts about whether Smith is in fact guilty are understandable.” But according to six justices, it’s not the 9th Circuit’s job to do anything about that.

There’s an old saying among judges: hard cases make bad law. It’s an old saying for a reason. If the facts of this case are as Bazelon describes them, then Smith would be an excellent candidate for a pardon (a fact Bazelon herself admits almost as an afterthought). But courts need to be concerned not only with the facts of the case in front of them, but also with the implications for future cases. There is no reason to think that federal judges are better equipped than state judges or juries to evaluate the credibility of witnesses and the merits of scientific evidence. The right of trial by jury and the dual sovereignty of our federal/state system are fundamental to America notions of law. Preventing the Ninth Circuit from undermining these notions is hardly vindictive.

– Josiah Neeley