A 24-year-old Black man who was convicted of killing his friend as a teen despite the 16-year-old being shot and killed by the police is fighting for his freedom.
LaKeith Smith was 15 years old when he and his friends broke into a house in Millbrook, Alabama to steal an Xbox on Feb. 23, 2015. Police arrived on the scene after being notified of a burglary in progress and confronted the teenagers. Smith reportedly ran into the woods as a police officer fatally shot his friend, 16-year-old A’Donte Washington. The police claimed that they returned gunfire after being shot at from inside the house on Clearview Lane.
Smith and three other teenagers were charged with felony murder as the officer who killed A’Donte was cleared by the Elmore County grand jury of any wrongdoing. The three teens arrested with Smith, then-18-year-olds Jaderrion D. Hardy and Jhavarske Jackson, as well as then-17-year-old Le’Anthony S. Washington, accepted plea deals. They received between 17 to 28 years in prison.
Smith decided to go to trial, and even though the all-white jury understood that the police shot and killed A’Donte’s friend, LaKeith was convicted of his death under the state’s felony murder law. The Alabama law allows any person committing a felony to be found liable for whatever deaths may occur during the commission of the crime.
LaKeith was tried as an adult for his friend’s murder and convicted. The teenager was sentenced to 65 years in prison. An appeals court later reduced the sentence to 55 years, and on March 21, he was resentenced to 30 years in prison.
Smith’s attorney Leroy Maxwell Jr. said that they will appeal his conviction and sentence while calling it “a grave miscarriage of justice.”
“What we plan on doing and what we need to do is to appeal the conviction and appeal the sentence,” Maxwell said. “We think they were both done injustice and so that’s our next step. There’s been a grave miscarriage of justice as far as LaKeith is concerned. He should be home right now. And the fact that he isn’t is a shame.”
A petition was started to free Smith after he served several years in a maximum-security prison in Saint Clair. The prison is considered one of the country’s most violent prisons, according to WBRC News. The outlet did an exposé on the prison after a whistleblower sent them graphic photographs from inside.
“They’re not at war, but they might as well be. The people Alabama locks away have been fighting a battle to survive for decades, serving time in a prison system that turns even short stays into hellish torture or a death sentence.”
“I am a concerned officer at St. Clair Prison located in Springville,” they wrote. “These photos are never before seen by anyone outside of the prison staff. Pictures are very graphic, both dead and still living. These represent only a small portion of the injuries from inmate-on-inmate violence in the past three years. This prison is currently under a settlement agreement from a federal lawsuit brought by the Equal Justice Initiate and the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
The prison guard also noted the desperate conditions of the prisoners. “The day-to-day treatment of these men does nothing but foster anger and despair. Until major fundamental changes take place in our sentencing and housing of these men, it will only continue to get worse. I can’t help but wonder if the public knows just how bad these men are treated day after day and year after year.”
Smith spoke at the hearing and said he was too young to understand the Alabama felony law when he stole the Xbox.
“I am so happy to have the opportunity to speak today. I deeply regret what I did that day,” Smith said. “I did not understand how the felony murder rule worked. I was too young and immature to handle a situation with adult weight. I apologize to this court for the immaturity that I previously displayed,” he added.
Vernice Washington, A’Donte’s mother, said in an affidavit filed with the court that she did not want Smith serving time for her son’s death, as did his father, Andre Washington,
“I was willing and available to testify to my preference as A’Donte’s mother that LaKeith Smith should not serve any time for the death of my son,” Vernice Washington wrote.
“They were kids, just kids,” said Andre Washington after the resentencing. “I don’t condone them going to somebody’s house and whatever. Give them time for that. But the murder of my child? No.”
19th Judicial Circuit District Attorney C.J. Robinson said he wanted to hear Smith claim responsibility for his friend’s death and say he was ready to “man up.”
“I still don’t feel like I heard any kind of acknowledgment or acceptance of the weight of the consequences of his choices,” said Robinson. “I was hoping to hear that as part of the hearing today, that ‘Yeah, this mitigation may explain my decision-making process. But at the end of the day, I’m ready to man up and say that I pushed that rock off the cliff, and where it ended up rolling, it caused my friend’s death.’”
Smith’s mother Brontina Smith was devastated following the resentencing.
“He’s not a murderer,” she said. “He doesn’t deserve 55 or 30 years.”