WETUMPKA, Ala. (AP) — LaKeith Smith was 15 when a police officer shot and killed his friend when the teens were caught burglarizing homes in Alabama, but it is Smith who will spend decades in prison for his friend’s death.
A judge on Tuesday sentenced Smith, now 24, to 30 years in prison — a reduction from the more than 50 years he originally received, but a blow to his family and advocates who argued he should not spend decades in prison for a killing he did not commit.
The new sentencing hearing was held after a judge ruled Smith’s original lawyer failed to present possible mitigating evidence about his home life and mental health.
Circuit Judge Sibley Reynolds handed down the new sentence after a lengthy court hearing. Sibley gave Smith the same punishment he previously handed down — 30 years for the felony murder charge and 25 years for burglary and theft — but this time allowed the sentences to run concurrently, instead of stacked on top of one another.
“What he received today was not justice. It was clearly an over-sentence,” defense attorney Leroy Maxwell said after court. He said they will pursue an appeal.
Maxwell said the case, which has garnered national attention because of Smith’s age and the sentence he received, is the “poster child” for the misuse of felony murder laws that allow someone to be charged for a killing during commission of a felony even if the death was unintentional.
The fatal shooting happened on Feb. 23, 2015, when Millbrook police officers responded to a call of a burglary in progress. A Millbrook police officer shot and killed 16-year-old A’Donte Washington when officers surprised the teens, local news outlets reported. A grand jury cleared the officer in the shooting. The surviving four teens were charged with felony murder. Three took a plea deal, and Smith went to trial.
The Elmore County courtroom, which sits across the highway from a state prison, erupted in angry shouts after the judge handed down the sentence, attorneys and others said.
“He’s not a murderer. He doesn’t deserve 55 or 30 years,” Smith’s mother, Brontina Smith, said after court.
Maxwell argued LaKeith Smith was the least culpable of the teens because he was the youngest and there was no evidence he fired a gun.
The judge heard testimony about Smith’s difficult home life, as well as a request from Washington’s father to let Smith go free.
“They were kids, just kids. I don’t condone them going to somebody’s house and whatever. Give them time for that. But the murder of my child? No,” Andre Washington said after court.
District Attorney CJ Robinson, who was the prosecutor in the case before being elected as district attorney, said the sentence is within the allowed guidelines.
“There are no winners here. Never have been (in) this case,” Robinson said via text after court. He supported the new sentencing hearing for Smith, agreeing that Smith’s original trial lawyer did an inadequate job at sentencing.
“I do wish I had heard LaKeith stand up and acknowledge that he made a series of choices that resulted in his friends death. Maybe to him he did that, but I’m not sure that message was communicated in court,” Robinson wrote.
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 their 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.