A bloodied wife’s screams recorded by her husband’s cell phone as he beat her should not have been used to convict him, an appeals court ruled Tuesday, because she didn’t give her consent to being recorded.
John Garrett Smith of Vancouver, Washington, was found guilty of assault and attempted murder last year after beating his wife Sheryl to a bloody pulp and leaving her for dead. The conviction hinged on a key piece of evidence: a voicemail recording of Smith, who goes by his middle name, Garrett, telling Sheryl, “I will kill you.”
The Smiths lived in a swanky home on the Washington-Oregon border and ran a clean-energy business together, until an argument left Sheryl fighting for her life on June 2, 2013. Sheryl’s 18-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Skylar Williams, had recently left the home to go to the gym, leaving the couple alone. The two began arguing, with Smith threatening Sheryl and calling her a “fat bitch” while she pleaded with him to stop, according to the appeals court decision. At one point, Smith called his cell phone from a landline in an attempt to find it.
The call went to voicemail, which then recorded Sheryl’s screams.
“Where is my phone?” Smith asks on the audio, according to the appeals decision.
“Look what you have done to me!” Sheryl screamed.
“I will kill you,” he replied.
Smith left and Williams returned home to find her mother on the floor, with a swollen face, broken nose, concussion, injured back, and brain damage. Sheryl told her daughter to make sure people knew it was her husband that assaulted her.
Smith “didn’t know… that she was still alive,” former Clark County Deputy Prosecutor Jennifer Nugent later alleged in court.
Smith’s defense attorneys said at trial the damning threats weren’t meant to be taken literally. In a letter to the court in February 2015, Smith said he meant no harm.
“First, I never intended to hurt Sheryl, let alone kill her,” he wrote, according to The Columbian. “Any inference otherwise is simply false.”
The judge disagreed and found Smith guilty of second-degree attempted murder and first-degree assault. (He opted to forego a jury of his peers for a bench trial.) Smith was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
He appealed on the grounds that the voicemail should not have been admitted as evidence because Washington requires both parties recorded to give consent—and his wife did not consent.
The appeals court agreed.
“Standing alone, Sheryl’s screams would not constitute a conversation. However, these screams were responsive to statements that John was making,” Judge C.J. Bjogen wrote. “Within this context, Sheryl’s screams serve as an expression of sentiments responsive to John’s yelling and thus constitute part of a conversation.”
And because the recording had featured so heavily in the court’s guilty ruling, the appeals court reversed Garrett’s second-degree attempted murder conviction and remanded it for a retrial.
Josephine Townsend, an attorney who represented Garrett in the trial, told The Daily Beast that she was thrilled with the outcome.
“I thought the ruling was an error at the time the judge made it, which is why I made a record,” she said. “The width and breadth of the statute in Washington is very broad, and the judge took a very narrow approach.”
Nugent, the prosecutor on the case, is now in private practice and declined to comment on the case other than to say she disagrees with the appeals court’s decision. (Attempts to reach Sheryl and her daughter, Williams, were unsuccessful.)
Townsend says prosecutors could request a new trial, or have him plead out on the assault charge. A guilty plea would allow him to count his attempted murder prison time toward his assault sentence.
“It’s not an automatic win. It’s basically a do-over,” Townsend said.
The lurid crime became fodder for a Vancouver community already livid over alleged corruption in the city’s criminal justice system. This steadfast group of Smith’s supporters took to the internet to argue for his innocence—and his wife’s guilt.
Over a series of blog and Facebook posts, Smith’s supporters characterized Sheryl of crying wolf in order to extort money from her then-husband.
In one post, a blogger accused Sheryl of being a less-than credible witness because she had had a maiden name and a previous surname from her prior marriage, which the writer described as “aliases.” Another characterized her as suspicious because she gave a prosecutor the letters Smith sent her from jail in violation of his no-contact order.
The website Garrett’s Voice called Sheryl “the real perpetrator,” accusing her of “betraying” Smith to “provide herself the lifestyle she desired” by defrauding Smith’s companies of $1.2 million—all without providing any evidence she did so.
Police investigated one of the supporters—the fiancé of Garrett’s Voice blog author Traci Eccles—for cyberstalking Sheryl. Eccles told The Daily Beast police flagged the blogging couple for allegedly making threats against the prosecutor in Smith’s case.
“Civilly, I can’t respond to that,” Sgt. Andy Hamlin, one of the officers accused of conspiracy to silence Smith’s supporters told The Daily Beast.
Eccles still insists that she and her fiancé have evidence exonerating Smith, even of his newly-upheld assault charge. She claimed a detective had fabricated the voicemail that once convicted him, and that his own counsel had suppressed his access to evidence while he was awaiting trial.
“[His counsel] brought him his evidence in jail on 20 CDs and a flash drive, and then refused to provide him with any equipment” to play it, Eccles said. Judge Bjogen refuted this accusation of evidence suppression in his appeals decision, writing in the reversal that Garrett had been acting as his own counsel at the time.
Meanwhile, Garrett’s parents are “ecstatic” over the decision, Townsend said.
“They’ve been hoping and praying for a good result from the appeal,” she said.