ShareThis Page
Nation

Death row inmate gets resentencing

| Friday, Nov. 19, 2004

HARRISBURG -- A death row inmate convicted of shooting two people to death -- including a promising rap artist -- will get a new chance to avoid execution because a prosecutor told jurors he had assaulted someone in prison.

The state Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a new sentencing hearing for Lawrence Smith but upheld his first-degree murder convictions for a pair of 2000 killings at an after-hours nightclub in Philadelphia, both committed during separate robberies that occurred a couple of months apart.

Smith, 24, was convicted in the April 2000 shooting of 22-year-old Raeneil "Q-Don" Quann, a member of the Philadelphia rap group NAAM Brigade, outside Club Evolution in the city's Fishtown neighborhood.

Smith fired into a crowd, shooting Quann in the head, while Smith and three others were attempting to flee after committing a robbery and assault about 3 a.m., police said.

Two months earlier, Smith and an accomplice robbed Songha T. Willis, 27, and two other men of jewelry and money outside Club Evolution before Smith shot Willis twice in the back of the head as he lay face-down, police said.

"They were cold-blooded killings in which the defendant executed people after robbing them," Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg said Thursday. "In both cases, the robberies had already been completed. The defendant was free to leave with his booty. But instead, he chose to turn around and fire."

A jury found Smith guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, robbery, conspiracy and possessing instruments of crime. The only penalties for first-degree murder in Pennsylvania are the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

The Supreme Court said the problem arose during the sentencing phase, when a prosecutor referred to the alleged prison assault to rebut a defense psychiatric expert's claim that Smith presented no danger to other inmates. The justices said testimony about the assault by a prosecution witness, Dr. John O'Brien, was flawed.

"There is no indication that Dr. O'Brien was present at, or somehow participated in, the alleged adjudication of (Smith) on the charge of assaulting a prisoner," wrote Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy in a unanimous opinion.

Smith's lawyer, Gary S. Server, said Smith was never charged criminally for the alleged assault. The prosecution's reference to the assault constituted false evidence that was "very harmful" in efforts to defend against the death penalty, Server said.

Smith was one of six inmates involved in a fight at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in November 2001, said Bob Eskind, spokesman for the Philadelphia prison system. As a result, all six inmates were placed in punitive segregation, Eskind said.

Eisenberg called the ruling "just the latest example of the hypertechnical review of death penalty cases for defendants who received an entirely fair trial." A decision has not been made about whether to continue to pursue the death penalty against Smith, he said.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me