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 was charged with the death of his friend. After rejecting a plea offer for 25 years and going to trial, he received thirty years for felony murder, a fifteen-year sentence for burglary, and two ten-year sentences for theft. In total, Lakeith Smith was sentenced to 65 years in prison. He was 15 years old.
The travesty in Lakeith’s case is at the intersection of a number of different issues targeted 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, Lakeith’s case illustrates the problems with prosecutors abusing that discretion. Prosecutors have the power to decide what crimes to charge people with, and in this case, prosecutors did not have to charge Lakeith with felony murder. A’Donte’s death was not committed by any of the other teenagers engaged in the burglary. By including a charge for felony murder, the prosecutor effectively guaranteed a longer sentence for Lakeith if he were to be found guilty.
Prosecutors also have discretion as to whether to charge people as juveniles or to transfer them to the adult system. Courts have long accepted that juveniles are not fully mature and lack control and adequate decision-making skills, which is reflected in the immature decision of the teenagers to partake in a burglary. However, courts have also recognized the greater likelihood of rehabilitation of juveniles. Since Lakeith was under 16 when the alleged offense was committed, the case could have taken place within the juvenile justice system where there is a greater consideration of alternatives to incarceration and the ability to be rehabilitated. However, the prosecutor used his discretion to prosecute Lakeith as an adult. And, unfortunately, under Alabama law, once a person is transferred to the adult court, they are permanently outside of the juvenile court jurisdiction.
These discretionary decisions have detrimental consequences. Transferring Lakeith to the adult system foreclosed his eligibility for diversionary programs that would have kept him out of prison. Charging Lakeith 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 Lakeith – 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” because it refers 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.
Lakeith was within his rights to demand 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 sends the message that only those who will be acquitted at trial are deserving of the chance to exercise their constitutional rights. This is contrary to this country's fundamental beliefs in due process, fair trials, 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 on punishment at any cost. This focus on punishment fuels our state’s mass incarceration crisis and disproportionately affects people of color and people with fewer resources.
However, these prosecutors are elected. Alabama’s district attorneys are accountable to the voters of Alabama. Ask your DA, and any candidates running for the position this election season, where they stand on criminal justice reform. How 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?
A district attorney who is committed to criminal justice reform, decreasing reliance on incarceration, and using their power for the fair and smart administration of justice can go a long way to making sure that a story like Lakeith’s never happens in Alabama again.