MARIETTA, Ga. – A suburban Atlanta couple was sentenced Tuesday to life plus 30 years in prison in the beating death of their 8-year-old son, a case that prompted authorities to raid the family's church because it supports corporal punishment.
Prosecutors said Joseph and Sonya Smith beat their son Josef, locked him in a wooden box and confined him to a closet for hours at a time before he died in October 2003.
The boys' parents had told authorities Josef had passed out and never regained consciousness after the family gathered in the kitchen to participate in a prayer session with their church via the Internet.
Their attorneys argued the boy didn't die from the injuries, and that the medical examiner failed to perform tests that would have found a cause of his death.
"I think it's serious enough where you should receive the maximum punishment and it should be on top of life," Superior Court Judge James Bodiford told the couple in sentencing them.
The Smiths looked at each other but said nothing as Bodiford imposed the sentences.
About two dozen supporters were in the courtroom, and several friends spoke on the couple's behalf, describing them as kind.
Bodiford called the letters of support for the Smiths "amazing," but said the supporters likely didn't have all the details.
The Smiths are members of the Franklin, Tenn.-based Remnant Fellowship Church, which grew out of church leader Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Workshop, a Christian diet program she created in the 1980s. Former members have said church teachings on discipline include discussion of corporal punishment. Shamblin has said the church leaves discipline to parents and believes in spankings as a last resort.
Although the church was investigated after Josef's death, police testified during the couple's trial they could not find any link between the boy's death and the religious institution.
Tedd Anger, one of the church's leaders, said they still believe the Smiths are innocent.
"We will support the Smiths in any way we can," he said outside the courtroom.