He Got 30 Years for Murder After a Cop Killed His Friend
Lakeith Smith's case epitomizes the issues with the "felony murder" doctrine.
Lakeith Smith has been behind bars since he was 15 years old. He will be there for quite a while longer, having been convicted of murder in 2018. The catch: Prosecutors are certain he didn't kill anyone.
In February 2015, Smith and a group of teens carried out a series of daytime burglaries in Millbrook, Alabama, when residents weren't home. They were primarily looking for gaming systems. A neighbor phoned police when she noticed a car arrive at one house where she knew the owner to be out of town on business.
Law enforcement arrived shortly thereafter; one officer entered the home via the front door. His body camera was off, so the events immediately following remain somewhat unclear. But according to the government, at some point, a 16-year-old boy named A'Donte Washington shot at police. Washington then exited the home and darted out from the backyard fence, with a gun, at which point a different officer—whose body camera footage can be seen here—shot and killed him.
Prosecutors then charged Smith, along with three other teens who took part in the burglary, with Washington's murder.
That may sound upside-down. But under the felony murder rule, defendants can be prosecuted for the death of someone they didn't actually kill if that death occurs during the commission of other various felonies. Under Alabama's statute, those crimes include first-degree escape, robbery in any degree, and first- or second-degree burglary.
In other words, because Smith and his friends were present at the burglary, it is as if they all pulled the trigger and killed their friend. Smith was subsequently tried as an adult and sentenced to 65 years in prison: 30 years for murder, 15 years for burglary, and 10 years apiece for two theft convictions. (It was later reduced to 55 years.)
Part of that severity was a result of him exercising his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial; the other boys accepted plea deals for far less prison time. Two of them, who are a year older than Smith, served 14 months. Even the original prosecutor on the case, C.J. Robinson, supported a resentencing hearing for Smith.
He got one last week. Judge Sibley Reynolds of the 19th Circuit allowed the sentences to run concurrently instead of consecutively, so Smith's punishment is the now the sentence he received for his murder conviction: 30 years.
Most states have some version of the felony murder rule. It's a little-known law that allows for broad application. Yet even with that wide berth and discretion, Smith's conviction may initially appear at odds with the text of Alabama's statute, which says that such charges may be brought if a person who participated in the underlying felony "causes the death of any person" and did so "in the course of and in furtherance of the crime that he/she [was] committing." Put differently, unless the government were to argue that the cop who shot Washington was an accomplice to the burglary and that he pulled the trigger as a part of carrying out that crime, then it would seem in contention with the law's intent.
But Alabama's Court of Criminal Appeals expanded the interpretation of its felony murder rule in a 2009 ruling, which set the scene for later convictions. That case, Witherspoon v. State of Alabama, centered around a duo who attempted to carry out an armed robbery at a gas station and who were promptly stopped by a store clerk with a gun. The cashier shot one of the robbers, Eric Baggett, who died. Baggett's co-conspirator, Jamie Marcus Witherspoon, was subsequently convicted of murdering him.
On appeal, Witherspoon argued that he couldn't have killed Baggett in the eyes of the law because, as the statute says, the clerk was not a part of the robbery. Had one of the robbers caused the death of, say, a customer, then felony murder charges would be fair game. But that wasn't the case.
In response, the court made a "logical leap," says Christine Field, an instructor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama. "The State established that Baggett would not have been killed but for the actions of Witherspoon and Baggett, who were participants in the robbery," wrote Justice Kelli Wise. "Because the actions of the participants in the robbery caused Baggett's death, Witherspoon was properly convicted of felony-murder." In other words, Witherspoon murdered Baggett by agreeing to rob the store with him.
"It's kind of bizarre the way that this went," Field tells Reason. "A plain reading [of the law] would appear to say…they're not talking about police or victims" killing someone who is committing a criminal act. That's especially true when considering the statute's second prong: "in the course of and in furtherance of the crime." Was the store clerk who shot Baggett furthering the robbery? Was the officer who shot Washington furthering the burglary?
The answer is obviously "no." But the decision in Witherspoon ruled solely on the "cause" prong and declined to address the furtherance piece altogether. That ambiguity has allowed prosecutors to continue pursuing charges against people like Lakeith Smith for breaking a law that it would appear they did not technically break.
"Right now, he's done about eight years in prison, and he didn't kill anyone," says Leroy Maxwell Jr., who represented Smith in his recent resentencing hearing. "The felony murder rule here in our state has sort of gone rogue."
It is not the only time where the rule has been used in puzzling ways. Last year, Vicky White, a correctional officer in Alabama, helped Casey White, a prisoner (with no relation), escape from the Lauderdale County Jail. When the police closed in on them, Vicky White killed herself. So the state turned around and charged Casey White with murdering her, because the two had committed a felony when they went on the run. This despite the fact that she shot herself in the head.
Alabama is also far from the only state with such prosecutions. In May of 2020, deputies with the Bonneville County Sheriff's Department in Idaho responded to a single-vehicle crash and a potential mental health crisis, as a woman named Jenna Holm was found standing in a dark, rural road with a machete. One of the responding officers had interacted with Holm a few days prior while she received help at the Behavioral Health Crisis Center in Idaho Falls. That officer ultimately tased Holm multiple times, subduing her.
Afterward, another officer, Deputy Wyatt Maser, crossed the street to handcuff Holm—at which point Sergeant Randy Flegel careened onto the scene in his patrol car, striking and killing Maser in the street.
Holm was charged with manslaughter.
She would go on to sit in jail for well over a year, awaiting trial on charges that she technically killed a man who died as she lay on the ground after having been repeatedly tased. But a judge ultimately threw out the charge—for the same reason that Smith's conviction may look odd: Maser was not killed by an agent of the underlying crime. (The offense, in this case, was Holm wielding a machete menacingly.)
Had Holm experienced her mental health crisis with an accomplice, and had that accomplice directly caused Maser's death, then the government could have proceeded. But Flegel—who is beyond a doubt the one who drove into Maser and killed him—was quite clearly not in cahoots with Holm. (An internal investigation, which the government attempted to conceal, concluded that the officers neglected to follow a slew of roadside safety protocols that evening, ultimately leading to Maser's demise.)
Holm's and Smith's similar cases and contrasting outcomes serve as somewhat of a microcosm for the debate that states across the country have had, and continue to have, about how to properly implement a felony murder rule without resulting in cases that border on parody. Idaho officially adopts what is known as the agency theory—where prosecutors cannot bring such charges against someone unless the death in question was caused by a participant in the related felony. But because of Alabama's decision in Witherspoon, that state employs the "proximate cause" theory, which makes no such specification and allows for prosecutions like Smith's.
"It was not corrected by the Legislature," adds Field.
In that vein, felony murder laws across the country have been the subject of intense scrutiny and amendment in recent years. Illinois, for example, recently reformed its law to follow the agency framework and made it so prosecutions like Smith's aren't possible. (Richly ironic is that Illinois' original felony-murder interpretation, prior to that reform, was cited by Alabama's Court of Criminal Appeals when it issued that fateful opinion in Witherspoon.) But another problem remains in places like Alabama: Such charges are treated on par with first-degree murder, which is defined by its intent to kill. Felony murder, on the other hand, is defined by the opposite. There is no intent.
Yet people convicted of felony murder still face the same ramifications. "You could charge someone with felony murder, but they shouldn't be sentenced on the same level as intentional murder, intentional rape, intentional sodomy, those sort of crimes," says Maxwell. "Lakeith [had] no intent to kill anyone, did not pull a trigger to kill anyone. However, he was punished on the same level as intentional murder, which carries in his situation 20 [years] to life in prison. So I think that right there is a major component that needs to be addressed."
It's not exactly a controversial proposal under our legal system, which already establishes gradations for murder based on aggravating factors—like intent. There's first-degree murder (a premeditated killing), second-degree murder (a crime of passion), and manslaughter (an unlawful killing without intent). The government agrees that felony murder is arguably most like door No. 3. And yet, in some states, it's punished as if it's the same as door No.1.
"I come from a background where I was taught that words mean things," says Field. "This is bananas."