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

I agree the sentence does not fit the crime, and understand other points made by the author, particularly the prosecutorial discretion for the murder charge. However, I wholeheartedly disagree with the "trial tax" argument. The shorter sentence offered in a plea deal is a "discount", not the other way around as a "tax". If there is no potential for a longer sentence after going to trial, there is no purpose whatsoever for a plea arrangement...why would anyone take a plea deal if the trial outcome would only be equal at worst?

Anonymous

This all makes it sound like he wasn't a criminal and did no wrong. He robbed people. He carried a weapon. He brought other people into a situation where someone got killed. He's entirely at fault. 30 years for the murder seems perfectly fair. It doesn't matter how old you are. Once you get past, say, 6, and you've had it drilled into your head for years that killing people is bad, robbery is bad, lying is bad, you have no excuse to engage in criminal activity.

Reese

I hope the ACLU help this young man overturn this new Jim Crow and enslavement sentence. The sentence is heavy-handed and criminal, and HE DIDN'T KILL ANYONE. He's blamed for the office killing is outrageous! 65 years is a living death while he conveniently is a slave to the privately own jails.
I was offended and angry when I read the prosecutor say, "Oh look how he (L.Smith) is laughing at the proceedings." No sir, you clearly don't work with young people-- he's laughed because he was scared and knows he got fucked with a sentence like that. It was not a fair trial with a 65-year pennant that only happens to people of color.
He was 15 years old at the time of the crime. They waited until he was 18 to take away any prospect of freedom by increasing the ungodly sentence that only certain New Jim Crow states like Alabama love to do disproportionately to black, poor, young men.
The sentence is not justice.
So ACLU what are you going to do to help him?

Anonymous

This is simply wrong. I do not condone what this 15 year old CHILD did but 65 years is TOO MUCH! Ethan Couth injured 9 and DIRECTLY killed 4 people drinking and driving at age 16 and got 10 years probation. This is not fair. The system is broken.

Pages

Stay Informed