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.

View comments (54)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

So what about this case? Is there any hope for Smith, any legal remedy for what has been done? What about the prosecutor, any more information on them? This piece could really use some more details and information.

Anonymous

I don't understand the backwards thinking here. So even though the law specifically states that during the commission of a felony any resulting deaths are your responsibility... it's not his responsibility? So you're saying the law is wrong. Why is it wrong? The point of the law is to state that if you had not been engaging in this unlawful act this person would not be dead. Therefore, by your own actions, you caused someones death. That sounds like murder to me.

In addition. A plea deal isn't to give low end sentencing and I believe you are approaching this from the most willfully ignorant way possible to say otherwise. The entire point of a plea deal is to give those accused an opportunity to show some remorse and not cost tax payers additional money for the trial, not to mention accepting a sentence that the PROSECUTOR feels is the bare minimum that they should be serving. Calling it a "trial tax" is woefully misinformed and an egregious attempt to manipulate others into agreeing with you. It simply is not this. The trail happens, the just gives a verdict and the JUDGE gives the sentence and he bases that on the crime, and the observable actions of the convicted. Of course you conveniently left out the part where Smith showed zero remorse for the loss of life or the crimes you admit he did do. Nor that he laughed at the judge during sentencing and told him "I don't have time for this". This is a fare of the highest type on your part and the ACLU should be ashamed of this sort of manipulative propaganda.

Anonymous

Alabama criminal code 13A-4-3 clearly states that but, I don't if you bothered to even look it up but it goes on to list the charges according to the object of the conspiracy as follows:
Criminal conspiracy is a:

(1) Class A felony if an object of the conspiracy is murder.

(2) Class B felony if an object of the conspiracy is a Class A felony.

(3) Class C felony if an object of the conspiracy is a Class B felony.

(4) Class A misdemeanor if an object of the conspiracy is a Class C felony.

(5) Class B misdemeanor if an object of the conspiracy is a Class A misdemeanor.

(6) Class C misdemeanor if an object of the conspiracy is a Class B misdemeanor.

(7) Violation if an object of the conspiracy is a Class C misdemeanor.

The object of the conspiracy was most definitely not the murder of A'Donte Washington so please explain how under Alabama law Smith was charged with muder, and sentenced to 15 years for burglary and 20 years for two counts of theft when the last two are punished as misdemeanors?

p.s.
This usually consists of a deal being made between the prosecutor and the defence an example of plea bargaining is when the prosecution offers to drop a more serious charge against the accused in exchange for guilty plea of a lesser charge and the prosecutor and defence come to an agreement to resolve the case.

If there is anyone here spreading manipulative propaganda, it's you.

Anonymous

What if you don't want to accept a plea deal because you are innocent? Not showing remorse would be appropriate in that case. And if the death of Smith's accomplice was ruled a justifiable homicide, how can it also be a murder? Also, the slain accomplice could have carried out the burglary without Smith, and it was his own choice, not Smith,'s, to fire his gun at the cops. Sounds to me like that young man was responsible for his own death. Also, Smith was 15 at the time. Why hasn't his youth been taken into account? We don't let 15 year olds drive, drink, vote, buy a gun, sign a contract, buy cigarettes, join the armed forces, etc; because we deem them too immature to make such decisions, but if they commit crimes we assume that they have an adult's capacity for judgment and sentence them accordingly! .How is that logical? As for juvenile offenders like Lakeith, I do believe the justice system should be tough, but also give youths a chance to make some changes. Maybe three years for such a crime, and a long period of strict parole. But not decades in prison. Not for what he did, at age 15.

Anonymous

Not showing remorse would be natural if you are innocent BUT his best friend is dead, many people have been hurt, he's looking at decades in jail -- most people would be upset and horrified in that situation.

Anonymous

This. Well said and on point.

Derek

Not a bad article, however a couple of your points astonished me.
First, Alabama's Accomplice Liability law is clearly stated. Accomplices are liable for anything that happens to their fellow perpetrators during the commission of a felony. Whether or not you agree with that is a different argument. However, while it is an active, binding law it needs to be treated as such. The legislation was passed for a reason, probably as a deterrent. Lakeith was as guilty as it gets on the felony murder charge by black letter law. Asking a prosecutor to ignore this charge is absurd. Would a cashier ignore items in your shopping cart?

Second, charges have very specific sentencing guidelines. In this case up to 65 years. Trials are expensive and prosecutors are paid by taxpayers. Offering a plea BARGAIN is an incentive to not go to trial. "If we can save money by skipping a trial we will give you a lighter sentence". Not the other way around. Its not "take this plea deal or we are going to put you away for 40 more years".

Anonymous

Very well thought out and worded argument against the article however, I would like to point out that under the same Alabama law it list charges based on the object of the conspiracy. Under said law, since the objective was most definitely not the death of A'Donte Washington, one could argue that there is no basis for them to charge Smith with murder. Also, he was given 15 years for burglary and 20 years for two counts of theft, both of which are punished as misdemeanors.

Derek

“Trial tax”? Give me a break. What a concept.

Anonymous

Maybe if you dont break into homes and hang around with kids who shoot at the police you wont go to jail at all. System is far from “broken”

Pages

Stay Informed