MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — LaKeith Smith was 15 years old when a police officer shot and killed his friend when the teens were caught burglarizing homes in Millbrook, but it was Smith who went to prison for his friend’s death, sentenced to spend decades behind bars.
Smith was convicted under Alabama’s felony murder law for 16-year-old A’Donte Washington’s death because he participated in the burglary that brought the officers to the scene. He was sentenced to a total of 55 years in prison — 30 years for the felony murder charge and 25 years for burglary and theft. A judge on Tuesday will weigh a new sentence for Smith, now 24, after ruling Smith had ineffective counsel who failed to present testimony about his home life and background at his initial sentencing.
Smith’s supporters — including Washington’s father — have rallied behind the efforts to reduce the sentence. They argue there are overarching questions of fairness with a minor being charged as an adult for a killing he did not commit.
“He wasn’t the one that murdered my son,” Andre Washington, A’Donte’s father, told The Associated Press in December. Andre Washington has offered to testify on behalf of Smith, writing in an affidavit that he and his family “do not hold LaKeith Smith responsible for the death of my son.”
The case has put a spotlight on the state’s felony murder law, a legal doctrine that holds someone liable for murder if they participate in a felony, such as a robbery, that results in someone’s death. Most states have felony murder laws, but rules vary on its use. According to a 2022 report by the Sentencing Project, a group advocating against mass incarceration, 14 states allow people engaged in a felony to be convicted of felony murder for a killing committed by a third party if it can be characterized as a foreseeable result of their action.
The new sentencing hearing came after years of advocacy surrounding the case, involving lawyers, pastors, advocacy groups, online petitions and the families of both young men.
“LaKeith’s harsh sentence is the opposite of good, smart justice,” said Daniel Forkkio, the CEO of Represent Justice. “The punishment does not fit the crime, and with every passing day that LaKeith spends in an overcrowded, overbearing, maximum security prison, his opportunity to give back to the community is being diminished.”
The fatal shooting happened on Feb. 23, 2015. Millbrook police officers responded to a call of a burglary in progress and surprised the five teenagers as they were coming through a door, local news outlets reported. Washington was shot as he ran officers with a gun and that there was an exchange of gunfire, law enforcement said. A grand jury cleared the officer in the shooting.
The four remaining teens were charged with Washington’s death. Three took plea deals, but Smith turned it down. Smith was convicted and first sentenced to a total of 65 years — 30 years for murder, 15 years for burglary and 10 years each for two theft convictions. The sentence was later reduced to 55 years total.
Smith will go before the same judge Tuesday that originally sentenced him to 65 years. The judge granted the new sentencing hearing after District Attorney CJ Robinson, who was the prosecutor in the case before being elected as district attorney, agreed that Smith’s original attorney did not present possible mitigating evidence at his his initial sentencing. However, Robinson has maintained the felony murder charge is appropriate, saying the fatal shooting came at the end of a crime spree the group committed that evening that included robbery and another shooting death in Montgomery.
Robinson declined to discuss the sentence he will seek ahead of the hearing but said in a text message, “when I made the decision to go forward with the charges and when I tried the case, I believed prison was where he belonged.”
“I still believe that, we are just going (to) have a new hearing and see for how long,” Robinson continued.
Smith’s family argued he should be punished for what he did, but that doesn’t include Washington’s death.
“He didn’t kill this boy. So why charge him for this murder?” Smith’s grandmother, Charlean Smith Fuller, said after a court hearing in December.