58 years after Selma, Alabama resentenced a young man to 30 years for a murder he didn’t commit

OPINION: LaKeith Smith was 15 years old when police shot and killed his friend during a botched burglary. But a legal doctrine led to Smith being tried and convicted of murder in the death of his friend.

A wooden table displays a brown wooden gavel and sound block, an open book and a brass scale
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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

A few weekends ago, I took a trip to Selma, Ala., on Bloody Sunday to show my support for the “Justice for LaKeith Smith” coalition and the Smith family. The trip was to raise awareness for the resentencing of LaKeith Smith, a young Black man who, in 2018, was sentenced to 65 years in prison (which was reduced to 55 years in 2019) after a police officer shot and killed his friend during a botched burglary in Elmore County, Ala. I was meeting with LaKeith’s mother, Tina, to pass out information about her son’s devastating case and to participate in a Bloody Sunday remembrance march.

In 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, Ala., where they were seeking Xbox games and tablet computers. When local police officers arrived at the scene, LaKeith’s 16-year-old friend, A’Donte Washington, was shot by one of the officers. A’Donte died at the scene. 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 legal doctrine that led to him being charged in the death of his friend. LaKeith has remained imprisoned in St. Clair Correctional Facility since then. On Tuesday, he was resentenced to 30 years by the same judge he faced nearly five years ago, ignoring the victim’s family, the child psychologist and even going further than the recommendation of the district attorney of 25 years. This same judge had announced his retirement back in December but essentially came out of retirement to handle this case.

As I traveled the hour from Montgomery to Selma for the first time, along the same road that thousands of Black activists and nonviolent demonstrators marched on 58 years ago, I was struck by the lack of historical markers along the road. For such an important moment in our nation’s history, I had expected to see something, anything honoring how in an act of frustration and resolve, our civil rights ancestors walked 54 miles to demand the right to vote and confront the brutalities of an unjust, segregationist system. But the road was eerily quiet — there was little traffic, even on such a momentous occasion.

It wasn’t until I entered Selma that I was greeted by a spectacle. Entire motorcades of journalists, photographers and officials were taking up space and blocking the streets, both physically and metaphorically placed above the community. I felt angry at the idea that the community was being left behind when they should have been front and center on a day of commemoration. The idea that those like Tina Smith are living injustice and have to watch the motorcades of those with the power go by. The idea that LaKeith is expected to continue to patiently wait behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit while the powers that be go about business as usual. The revolting display of power, leaving behind the people that need it most made me physically ill and discouraged. 

It wasn’t until I stopped and took a few deep breaths that I realized what I was feeling.

It was grief. I was grieving. For LaKeith and so many others who have been victimized by an unjust system.

The history of our people, the resolve, the courage and the pain that they went through in this very place shook me to my core, almost suffocating me. 

I found relief in the incredible warmth of the community, a crowd of people local to Alabama as well as those who had traveled to Selma in an act of remembrance and solitude. With every small smile from an elderly couple and every family conversation, I was able to build myself back to a place of gratitude and remember that the work wasn’t over and that I had a reason for being here. I wasn’t just marching in remembrance, I was marching for justice.

For LaKeith. For Tina and the family. For the future of our community.

Tina and I marched across the bridge together, both of us for the first time, not speaking a word outside of the occasional chants of freedom and justice that echoed. All of us were connected — the signs, the shirts, the stories, grieving and fighting, fortifying our resolve by sharing our stories together. 

This week, on March 21, 58 years since Bloody Sunday and 54 miles away from the Selma march to Montgomery, LaKeith Smith, now 24, was resentenced to 30 years in prison after witnessing his friend be murdered by a police officer eight years ago. 

It’s time to face down a brutal system and show the Alabama courts that we are watching. To remind the Smith family that they are not alone. And to seek justice.

Daniel K. Forkkio is the chief executive officer of Represent Justice.

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