December 25, 2014

Elyria
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Man acquitted of child abuse charges in 2007 convicted on similar charges

James P. Smith, right, appears in court Monday with his attorney, Jeff Brown. BRAD DICKEN/CHRONICLE

James P. Smith, right, appears in court Monday with his attorney, Jeff Brown. BRAD DICKEN/CHRONICLE

ELYRIA — An Elyria man who once was cleared by a judge of charges he abused a child by hitting him with a belt was sentenced to jail time Monday by another county judge after being convicted in a similar case.

James P. Smith, 35, will be on probation for two years and spend 90 days in the Lorain County Jail with work release privileges, county Common Pleas Judge Mark Betleski ruled.

Smith was convicted of domestic violence and endangering children by a jury in January. Those allegations centered on bruises, swelling and scratches on his 12-year-old son’s face that school officials saw on Feb. 4, 2013.

The boy told authorities that Smith had “pushed him, hit him with a belt about the body, and slapped and punched him in the face multiple times” on Feb. 1, 2013, Assistant County Prosecutor Chris Pierre wrote in court documents filed in the case.

The boy said that Smith was already angry with an older sibling and became upset with him when a younger sibling told their father that the victim didn’t want to shake hands with him, Pierre wrote.

Smith said he wanted to reconnect with his children. Betleski barred him from seeing them without supervision.

“I’m just willing to do what it takes to get my kids back and build a relationship,” Smith said.

Jeff Brown, Smith’s attorney, said in court Monday that his client had believed he was administering proper discipline, something Pierre disagreed with.

“It’s not discipline,” Pierre said. “The defendant physically abused his own flesh and blood.”

Brown also said that his client now “realizes it may have been excessive.”

The discipline defense worked for Smith before. In 2007, he was acquitted by county Common Pleas Judge James Burge during a bench trial on domestic violence and child endangering charges for allegedly striking his then-8-year-old son with a belt.

In that case, Lorain police arrested Smith after the alleged victim in that case showed several red marks on his back to a fellow student. A teacher saw the interaction between the two students and reported the marks to police.

Burge said at the time that the marks on the boy’s body looked worse than they actually were. He also said that Smith had used a belt on the boy only after other methods of disciplining him, including grounding, taking away video games and extra chores, had failed.

In that case, Burge said in 2007, the boy was in trouble for inappropriately touching fellow students and teachers.

Burge’s decision to acquit Smith nearly seven years ago and his subsequent defense of corporal punishment drew heated criticism, but the judge said Monday that he couldn’t comment on Smith’s current legal problems because he didn’t know the facts of the case.

Although Pierre brought up the prior case during Monday’s hearing, Brown argued that Betleski shouldn’t take that into consideration because Smith was acquitted of the charges.

County Prosecutor Dennis Will said it wasn’t the previous charges that led his office to push for Smith to serve time in prison in the most recent case, but rather that Smith had previously undergone counseling for physically abusing his children and still found himself back in court.

Will also said that in the latest case, the jury determined that Smith’s actions couldn’t be justified as punishment.

“They clearly did not feel this was in the permissible level,” he said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.