MARIETTA, Ga. – A suburban Atlanta couple was convicted of murder Friday in the beating death of their 8-year-old son, a case that prompted authorities to raid the parents' 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.
They could receive up to life in prison at sentencing, set for March 27. Their attorney said he was considering an appeal.
The Cobb County medical examiner concluded that Josef died from blows to the head, and firefighters who responded to the family's 911 calls said his body was covered with bruises.
The couple's attorneys contended that Josef did not die from the injuries, and that the medical examiner failed to perform crucial tests that would have found the actual cause of his death.
A police witness said Joseph Smith's father acknowledged hitting the boy "four or five times," and told officers his son frequently needed discipline because the child carved death threats on the walls and claimed to be a "soldier of the devil."
The boys' parents told authorities Josef 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.
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 1986.
Authorities raided the church in June 2004 as part of the investigation of Josef Smith's death. Officers testified that they never established a solid link between the church and the boy's death.
Several members of the church attended the court session, but declined to comment.
Josef would have been 12 Friday, prosecutor Eleanor Dixon said. In her closing argument Wednesday, she sang "Happy Birthday" to the dead boy, leaving the defendants in tears.
The Smiths were also convicted of involuntary manslaughter, cruelty, aggravated assault, reckless conduct and false imprisonment.