2022 MT Courtroom Journalist and Artist - 2nd Place

Courtroom Artist 2nd Place
Sathvika Sitaraman, California High School (San Ramon Valley Unified School District)

Burnsley gardener found not guilty of murder and manslaughter

By Shiphrah Moses, California High School (San Ramon Valley Unified School District)

Jamie Cobey, gardener and resident of Burnsley, was found not guilty on the charges of first degree murder and voluntary manslaughter of Erik Smith by Judge Gina Dashman on Tuesday.

Erik Smith, Cobey’s landlord, was bit by a rattlesnake hiding in his mailbox on April 29 as witnessed by neighbor Angel Russell. The day after, Smith was found lying face down on his front lawn and was later pronounced dead by paramedics.

Chief Medical Examiner of Burnsley County Dr. Charlie Dunn examined Smith’s body. The autopsy found that the snake venom caused hemorrhaging to Smith’s heart and exacerbated prior health conditions, leading to his death.

On the morning of Smith’s death, Cobey was found gardening on her front lawn by neighbor Terry Edwards. “It's quite odd that Jamie would be gardening at this time,” he testified.

The prosecution claimed that it was Cobey who placed the snake in Smith’s mailbox, leading to his death.

The defense, however, argued that the snake had gotten into the mailbox on its own.

“It was a tragic but accidental death at the hands of mother nature,” said defense attorney Hela
Khalil in her opening statement.

Dr. Tyler Clay, a specialist in herpetology, or the study of snakes, agreed with this argument.

“It is a total possibility that the snake could have climbed into the mailbox,” Clay testified.

“Either through the front door or even through the tiny slot on top.”

However, the prosecution argued that Cobey and Smith’s strained relationship was proof that Cobey had the motive to kill Smith.
Smith had shut off electricity to Cobey’s home on April 22. This caused Cobey’s mother, also a resident of the home, to die as she was dependent on an oxygen machine requiring electricity. When Smith showed up uninvited to Cobey’s mother’s funeral, the two got into a heated
argument.

Sheriff Toni Garrett testified that he had also received numerous calls from Smith complaining of Cobey’s actions.

“Smith’s complaints ranged from animal feces left on his doorstep, to the blocking of his driveway because of Cobey’s car, to suspected break in,” said Garrett.

After receiving the call from Smith about the suspected break in, Garrett assisted Smith in installing a smart camera on his house, directly surveilling Cobey’s backyard. Pictures from this camera were obtained of Cobey with snake feeding tongs. In a pretrial motion, the defense requested for this evidence to be excluded as the camera violated Cobey’s expectation of privacy and the pictures were obtained without a legal warrant. The request was granted by Judge Dashman.

“I was shocked to learn that Erik died,” said Jamie Cobey. “I had nothing to do with his death.”
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