Grandmother jailed for brutally murdering pregnant woman and her unborn child could be innocent, docu claims
The perplexing case will be revisited by Joe Berlinger and a team of private investigators during the second season of Starz Network show
Nestled in the rural confines of Greene County, Tennessee, Greeneville is not a town where one would go if they expected thrill and adventure. With a population of a little over 15,000, its biggest claims to fame are its unique spelling and the fact that it was where President Andrew Johnson began his political career.
So, when on August 12, 2016, news went around that police were investigating a murder, it caused quite the furor. That mood was darkened further when it emerged that the primary suspect was a 51-year-old grandmother.
The body of 21-year-old mother-of-two Jessica Nicole Morrison had been discovered that night off Jud Neal Loop in Afton by a man who had been walking his dog along the desolate one-lane road. She had been brutally beaten and had died after suffering trauma to the head. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which was called to the scene, determined that the assailant had used a blunt object to carry out the crime. They also found the victim was pregnant.
The murder sent shockwaves through the town, as Morrison was not one with enemies. She had never been the type to hang out with the wrong crowd, was well-liked, and to everyone who knew her, was a doting mother to two young children, a three-year-old and a one-year-old.
Imagine everyone's surprise, when seven months later, in March 2017, authorities arrested 51-year-old Vonda Star Smith in connection to the killing and charged her with two counts of first-degree murder -- the second count prompted by the death of the unborn child in Morrison's womb.
Smith was the grandmother to one of Morrison's children, who was fathered by her son William. Her house was about five miles from the location where the 21-year-old's body was found. And surprisingly, the evidence against Smith was not insignificant. A police recording of the time a deputy informed her of Morrison's death seems to suggest that she was not surprised by the murder. She did not offer any reaction, instead, exclaiming, "I did not see her!"
But she had been the last person to see Morrison alive when she had lent the 21-year-old her car earlier that evening. When detectives inspected the car, they also found blood all over the passenger seat. Smith insisted that, when Morrison had returned the car a few hours after she borrowed it, the blood had not been there. However, it was determined that she had cleaned the car with bleach. When questioned, the grandmother claimed she had only done so because the insides had previously smelled of cat urine and not because she wanted to destroy evidence of a crime scene.
Furthermore, while she insisted that she loved Morrison and her grandchild more than the world, text messages between the pair indicated that there had been tensions between them. Smith was seemingly unhappy and agitated that she could not spend enough time with the grandchild and had expressed as much in the messages, and investigators suspected that it had reached a point where the 51-year-old had snapped.
The evidence, as well as testimony from Morrison's mother and other witnesses, doomed Smith, who was convicted by a jury on both counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Despite the conviction, Smith continued to maintain her innocence, and eventually caught the attention of Joe Berlinger, who recently spearheaded and directed two projects centered around infamous serial killer Ted Bundy for Netflix, but is still best known for his work on the 'Paradise Lost' trilogy.
Besides pioneering a new style of documentary filmmaking, the first film crucially gathered so much evidence that the West Memphis Three accused and wrongfully convicted of the brutal May 1993 murders and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys were exonerated and walked free.
It inspired Berlinger to undertake another docu-series 'Wrong Man,' where he similarly explored cases of people he felt were in jails for crimes they did not commit via a team of private investigators who thoroughly revisited each case.
The first season proved to be a resounding success, with his reexamination of the case of Curtis Flowers catching the attention of not only national media but also the U.S. Supreme Court, who stayed his execution and kick-started the process that saw his conviction thrown out.
Smith's story will be the subject of the latest season of 'Wrong Man,' which will premiere on the Starz Network on Sunday, February 9, and will see the primarily the same team of investigators from season one break down the irregularities that they believe got the innocent grandmother behind bars.