Death row inmate gets resentencing
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.