Originally created 09/06/97

Child-death case still on hold



Five days after Dimetria Smith's third birthday, the teddy bear that should have been the little girl's cuddly confidant became a funeral gift instead.

As she lay peacefully in her coffin, her dress covered the bruises that were evidence of the violent days before she died - evidence, officials said, of a beating that killed her.

Almost three weeks earlier, on Sept. 6, 1991, the girl's maternal grandmother had brought her to the emergency room at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center suffering from a blow to the head.

Six years later, the mystery of Dimetria's death is unsolved, but the ordeal has torn apart a family that only wants some kind of resolution.

"The justice system doesn't seem to be doing anything," said Hyacinth Smith, Dimetria's paternal grandmother. "Nothing has been done. We can't get our lives together. Her father can't get over this."

The facts of the little girl's death were presented starkly and simply: Richmond County Coroner Leroy Sims pronounced it a homicide.

"She had bruises on her forehead, temples, chest, abdomen and buttocks," Mr. Sims said at the time. "The cause of death was blunt head trauma due to battered child syndrome - it couldn't have come from anything else."

Finding someone to blame has proven a more complicated task. And District Attorney Danny Craig now says it will take "the grace of God" for the case to be prosecuted.

"Based on the evidence we have, we couldn't satisfy ourselves, as prosecutors, that we could prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," said Mr. Craig, who added that he considered the file closed. "I can't anticipate any additional evidence that would further this case."

The path through the judicial system has been tortuous: A grand jury initially refused to indict Dimetria's maternal grandparents, Joseph Wallace, 51, and Mi Ja Wallace, 42, on child cruelty charges after the girl's death. But in the spring 1993, a second grand jury indicted the couple on murder and cruelty charges.

The case sat on the court docket for almost four years before the district attorney's office consigned it to limbo on the dead docket in February.

Technically, the case remains open but any additional action is unlikely, Mr. Craig said.

The Wallaces, who have pleaded not guilty to the charges, say the girl slipped and fell in the bathtub, where Mrs. Wallace found her, said their attorney, John Watkins.

Mrs. Smith doesn't believe the story.

"It was no accident," she said forcefully during a telephone interview from Florida. "They say she was battered. When my sister lifted her dress at the funeral, her body had marks on it."

Officials who saw the bruises on the girl's body also doubted the story, Mr. Craig said. An autopsy revealed a number of healed injuries, but it couldn't be determined how old some were or what had caused them.

The Wallaces have said Dimetria was mistreated before they brought her to Augusta from Tennessee, where she was living with her mother, Mr. Watkins said. She had been in Augusta about a month before she died.

Even if a jury rejects the bathtub slip and decides on a beating as causing Demetria's death, prosecutors would still find their hands tied because they couldn't prove who dealt the fatal blow, Mr. Craig said.

Speculation that a 5-year-old child who also lived with the Wallaces beat up Dimetria, causing the bruises, could also sway the jury, he said.

"We think it's very unlikely" a 5-year-old could inflict those kinds of injuries, he said. "But it's just possible enough that it could plant seeds of reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.

"We kept the case open for four years because we hoped that, as time went by, for whatever reason, one or both of the defendants would be more forthcoming with information," Mr. Craig said. "We still believe they have more information than they have provided to us."