The Lakeith Smith Case Demonstrates the System’s Brokenness

One night in 2015, several teenagers got together and burglarized two homes in Millbrook, Alabama. After being confronted by police, one of the teenagers, A’Donte Washington, engaged in a shootout with an officer and was killed during the gunfire. Lakeith Smith, another one of the teenagers, participated in the burglary. He did not have a gun and did not shoot at anyone, yet he was charged with the death of his friend.

After rejecting a plea offer for 25 years and going to trial, he received 30 years for felony murder, a 15-year sentence for burglary, and two 10-year sentences for theft. In total, Smith was sentenced to 65 years in prison. He was 15 years old.

The travesty in Smith’s case is at the intersection of a number of different issues raised by criminal justice reformers.

Prosecutors make choices that can mean the difference between a few years or a life in prison.

Prosecutors are among the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. And while prosecutorial discretion can be wielded for good, Smith’s case illustrates the problems with prosecutors abusing that discretion. Prosecutors have the power to decide which crimes to charge, and in this case, prosecutors did not have to charge Smith with felony murder.

Prosecutors also have discretion to charge people as juveniles or to transfer them to the adult system. Courts have long accepted that juveniles can lack impulse control, which is reflected in the decision of the teenagers to participate in a burglary. However, courts have also recognized the greater likelihood of rehabilitation of juveniles.

Since Smith was under 16 when the burglary was committed, the case could have been handled in the juvenile justice system where there is greater consideration given to alternatives to incarceration and the ability to be rehabilitated. However, the prosecutor decided to prosecute Smith as an adult. And, unfortunately, under Alabama law, once a person is transferred to adult court, that person is permanently outside of juvenile court jurisdiction.

These discretionary decisions have detrimental consequences. Transferring Smith to the adult system foreclosed his eligibility for diversionary programs that would have kept him out of prison. Charging Smith with felony murder ensures that he will spend the majority of his life — if not all of it — in prison, foregoing any chance of meaningful rehabilitation.

The loss of one teenager is tragic enough, but the prosecutor's decisions in charging and sentencing Smith — who did not possess a gun and never shot at police — exacerbates this loss by throwing his life away, too. It is not justice when the punishment so clearly does not fit the crime.

People should not be punished for using their right to a trial by jury.

It is no secret that sentences after trial are much harsher than those given to people who accept plea bargains. It is often called a “trial tax” or “trial penalty” --- a reference to criminal defendants receiving a more severe sentence because they decided to exercise their constitutional right to a trial and reject the prosecution’s plea agreement.

Smith exercised his right to a trial, and his lack of success should not lead to a longer sentence. Rather, the sentence should be in line with what was offered as a plea bargain and should be appropriate for the crime. A sentencing scheme that imposes a trial tax is contrary fundamental fairness, due process, and an impartial justice system.

Prosecutors are crucial for the administration of justice, and we need to hold them accountable for their actions.

The job of the prosecutor is to advance justice, yet all too often they have focused only on punishment. This focus fuels our state’s mass incarceration crisis and disproportionately affects people of color and people with fewer resources.

However, because these prosecutors are elected they are accountable to the voters of Alabama. Ask your district attorney and any candidates running for the position where they stand on criminal justice reform.

Where do they stand on the prosecution of juveniles as adults? What are their positions on police accountability and oversight? Have they encouraged participation in diversionary programs for people accused of crimes? Do they believe that people can be rehabilitated?

Last year, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice announced a new, multi-year initiative to make sure that prosecutors are held accountable to their communities. A recent ACLU national poll found that 95 percent of respondents support the idea that a prosecutor engaged in misconduct should be held accountable.

A district attorney who is committed to criminal justice reform, decreasing reliance on incarceration, and using the power of the office for the fair and smart administration of justice can go a long way to making sure that a case like Smith’s never happens in Alabama again.

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Anonymous

@Anonymous who is saying he deserves this;
Hey, you know who else I've met who's an asshole? Literally every fifteen year old ever. People are cocky little shits at that age. Their brains aren't fully developed yet. I was a sociopath at that age and it wasn't until I was near 20 that I finally felt remorse for things I'd done in the past. The law of trying adults vs children ACCOUNTS FOR THIS. By throwing this not-fully-grown person in jail for the rest of his life, we're damning him to never becoming a better person. And when he finally gets out? Everything he knows will have been learned from prison life. In what fashion is this supposed to benefit society?

Anonymous

15 year olds may be cocky and annoying but few of them commit armed robberies. Even elementary school aged children know that stealing is wrong.

Anonymous

So this is clearly a fake account and nobody's pointing out how 'La'keith and 'Bron'tina make LaBron and I'm laughing my ass off.

Anonymous

This story is wrong Adonte didn't shoot at anyone

Anonymous

And I have proof that it's a big cover up contact one of his closest supporters preferably a family member on Facebook

Anonymous

#FreeLakeithSmith

Anonymous

What, if any, opportunities are there for an appeal? How is it that the prosecution can elect to treat him as an adult? None of this makes any sense to me, I can't even begin to imagine this situation from his perspective. Knowing that he probably will never get another trial is haunting and affirms that our justice system is broken beyond repair.

Anonymousj

He was given a chance in court to apologize and show some amount of remorse, and chose not to. Those actions reflect very poorly on your character as a human being, and definitely don't help your case any as far as sentencing goes. All of that gets taken into consideration. Sounds like he's getting what he deserves.

Raven

How do we support Lakeith in getting a reduced sentence?

Dr. Timothy Leary

Send a donation to the ACLU of course.

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