New doc spotlights teen serving 55 years for murder of boy who was shot by cops

According to the Justice for LaKeith Smith coalition:

“In February of 2015, LaKeith, who was 15 years old at the time, and a group of friends were involved in the break-ins of two unoccupied homes in Millbrook, Alabama. The teens were still present in one of the homes when local police officers arrived at the scene. During that encounter, LaKeith’s 16-year-old friend A’Donte Washington was shot and killed by one of the officers.

Although he was the youngest in the group, LaKeith was denied being tried as a juvenile and was charged as an adult. He was convicted of theft, burglary, and felony murder — a charge that held him legally responsible for the death of A’Donte.”

Alabama law maintains that a person commits the crime of murder if they commit or attempt to commit a felony and, “in the course of and in furtherance of the crime that he/she is committing or attempting to commit, or in immediate flight therefrom, he/she, or another participant if there be any, causes the death of any person.”

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Smith didn’t even have a gun on the night in question. The ACLU reported: 

“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.”

Warning: This video contains footage of a shooting that viewers may find triggering.

Cases like Smith’s are what should come to mind next month, when some 1,200 prosecutorial races are on the ballot, including 30 state attorney general races. 

Of those, only about 20 are contested races involving “prosecutors with notable reform agendas,” Jessica Henry, a former public defender and Montclair State University professor, wrote for the news nonprofit The Conversation.

“As a scholar who writes and teaches about criminal justice and wrongful convictions, I know that top prosecutors have tremendous power when deciding how justice is meted out — what crimes to charge, which people to bring charges against, and how cases are prosecuted,” Henry penned. “How they choose to wield that control has significant consequences for poor people, communities of color, victims of crimes, and society at large.”

Of the progressive prosecutors, many have said they want fewer people in jails through decreased prosecution of misdemeanor offenses like trespassing and drug possession. “These kinds of charges disproportionately, and often unnecessarily, affect people of color and the poor, resulting in lasting criminal records,” Henry wrote. “These prosecutors believe they can change the system from within, improving the overall fairness of the United States’ criminal legal system, while keeping the community safe.”

A 2021 study conducted by professors from Rutgers, Texas A&M, and New York University shows “no significant effects“ of such reforms on local crime rates. The study used “variation in the timing of when 35 reform-minded prosecutors were inaugurated in cities and counties across the country as a natural experiment to measure the effects of their reforms on local crime rates.”

Henry wrote:

“One of the authors of that study argues that refusing to prosecute nonviolent misdemeanor offenses may actually reduce crime. Not prosecuting certain crimes can help people avoid a criminal record, which, in turn, can help them find stable housing and work.”

Another survey pooling data from 65 major cities showed “no evidence to support the claim that progressive prosecutors were responsible for the increase in homicide during the pandemic or before it.”

Still, Republicans keep targeting progressive prosecutors, and not without consequence.

RELATED STORY: ‘There is no Purge Law in Chicago’: Attorney explains why we have to stop believing GOP lies

Chesa Boudin, the former district attorney of San Francisco seated in 2020, was booted from office in a recall election two years later after Republicans totted claims his policies led to an increase in crime. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the first Black man to hold the seat, continues to face scrutiny for supporting bail reform.

Crime has been an effective platform for Republican candidates in the past, and they have placed it front and center in the final weeks leading up to the midterm elections in 2022,” Henry wrote. “While many Democratic district attorneys and attorneys general take a more traditional approach to crime in their election campaigns, others promise a new approach to crime and justice.”

I can only hope voters elect these progressive prosecutors so Black and brown children have a hope of actually being allowed to make mistakes without being thrown in jail for most of their lives.

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