The Iowa Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned the conviction of a mother who has been imprisoned for nearly four years after being found guilty of injuring her young son, basing its decision on the boy's newfound ability to speak and claim he was hurt after sticking his arm into a washing machine.
Tammy Smith was found guilty of hurting her then-4-year-old son in 2006, after his arm was broken in four places and his shoulder dislocated. Prosecutors could not prove how the injury happened, but doctors testified it could only have been caused by a lot of force or leverage being applied to the child's arm. Smith was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The boy was described as "developmentally delayed" and could only make grunting sounds and other noises at the time of Smith's trial. He has since been in school and met with counselors and has been able to talk about what happened, telling people he hurt his arm when he put it in a front-load washing machine that was on spin cycle.
During one visit with a family counselor in 2007 the child stated: "I broke my arm in the washing machine."
On Wednesday, the appeals court sent the case back to district court, where Smith could face a new trial.
"This child's ability to speak is in fact new evidence that wasn't available at the time of trial. We're very pleased that the Court of Appeals determined that was new evidence warranting a new trial for my client," said defense attorney Darren Driscoll.
It would be up to the county attorney to decide whether to try Smith again. However, the attorney general's office may ask the Iowa Supreme Court for further review, said attorney general's office spokesman Geoff Greenwood. If the Supreme Court denies further review, or takes up the case and rules against the state, the attorney general's office would have to consult with the county attorney on whether to pursue another trial, Greenwood said.
The boy's parents previously speculated that their son hurt his arm in the washing machine because he had been able to open it since he was 2 years old, but Smith's attorney failed to introduce the theory as a possible defense at trial. Smith had initially told a doctor that she was taking clothes out of the dryer and noticed her son who was standing next to her had hurt his arm.
Smith filed a motion for further review of her case after her son began to speak, and he testified during a hearing that she did not hurt him and that "he did it himself by putting his arm in the washer when the spin cycle was moving and almost done," the court of appeal's ruling said.
The boy testified that "at the time of the injury he was trying to tell people what happened, but it was hard because he couldn't talk," the appeals court ruling said.
The district court had earlier ruled that the washing machine defense was not new evidence because Smith and her attorney knew about it before her trial. The Court of Appeals disagreed.
"In this case, Tammy did not know and could not have known, the general nature of (her son's) testimony because he was unable to communicate this at the time of her trial," the court wrote. "The evidence here was unknown and unavailable."
"With the child's testimony, there is a reasonable likelihood that the result of the trial would be different," the court added.
Driscoll said his first priority is to get Smith out of the state prison in Mount Pleasant, pending the possibility of a new trial.
"I'm hoping we can get her out of prison in short order," he said. "We've got this ruling and it isn't worth the paper it's written on if she stays in prison."
Associated Press writer Melanie S. Welte contributed to this report.