A Teen Got 55 Years After Cops Killed His Friend. He Might Be Coming Home.

LaKeith Smith is finally being resentenced. But he’ll face the same Alabama judge who sent him to prison for felony murder when cops killed his friend.
BronTina Smith, LaKeith's mother, holds a portrait of him. (Jika Gonzalez/VICE News)

LaKeith Smith stood in a brightly lit Alabama courtroom on a cold but unseasonably sunny day last December. He’d seen this judge before—when he was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

Aside from his attorney, there were two other friendly faces in the room, both by court order: Smith’s mother and the father of the boy whose death the state blamed on Smith—even though police agree that Smith was not the one who killed him.


Smith figured, though he couldn’t know for sure, that there were more friendly faces outside the courtroom. He was right. A small crowd of supporters, hoping for the best, was standing on the lawn in front of the building. They wanted to come in to watch the proceedings, but the judge had barred the public, including all journalists, from entering the courtroom.

Even Smith’s grandfather couldn’t come inside. He had to stand outside with everyone else.

“This case needs public awareness. To remove the public from the process, it hurts everyone, not just LaKeith. It hurts everyone.”

Before long, Smith’s attorney exited the building and addressed the small crowd of family, community members, and activists with some good news. The judge had agreed that some evidence may not have been shown in Smith’s original case and that he should be resentenced.

Smith’s supporters hope that will mean he can come home sooner—perhaps even the same day of the new hearing, which has been set for March 21. 

But this hope is also balanced with the knowledge that Smith’s fate will be decided by Judge Sibley G. Reynolds, the same judge who first gave Smith a 65-year sentence, which was later reduced to 55 years. Reynolds was also the judge that prevented the public from entering the courtroom.

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Vernice Washington visits her son A’Donte’s grave to commemorate the anniversary of his death. (Jika Gonzalez/VICE News)

Smith was 15 years old when he and a group of other teenage boys broke into two homes in Elmore County, Alabama, in 2015. It was daytime, and the residents were not home. As the boys later admitted, they were stealing things like Xbox games and tablet computers.


Police were called, and one of them entered the front door of the home. What happened immediately after is murky, because the officer who first engaged the boys had his body camera switched off the entire time. The boys attempted to flee the scene, and shots were fired, including, police say, by 16-year-old A’Donte Washington. While running out of the house, Washington was intercepted by another officer, who shot and killed him.

The other four boys were taken into custody, including Smith, who surrendered without incident when he was found in the woods.

Then, all the boys—including Smith, who was found with a pistol that police did not accuse him of using—was charged with murder. All the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing. 

A doctrine called felony murder states that if someone dies during the commission of certain kinds of felonies, then anyone participating in that felony can be held responsible for their death—even if they did not directly cause their death.

Laws like this exist in nearly every state. While no government entity keeps official numbers on how the charge of felony murder is applied, independent studies have shown that felony murder is disproportionately, and overwhelmingly, used to lock up black and brown people.

And thus, four black Alabaman boys found themselves as confirmation of a statistic, facing prison time for the death of their friend who had been killed by a police officer. Most of the boys took plea deals and were given sentences ranging from 17 to 28 years.


Smith, who at the time also had charges pending from another case that have since been dismissed, was the only one to go to court and plead not guilty.

The trial, which was held in front of an all-white jury, was brief. He was found guilty. 

Smith, who was first locked up at 15 years old and had just turned 18 at the time of his conviction, would not be released until he was over 70 years old. But now, with this resentencing hearing, there is some hope that he could come home.

After years of advocacy, a coalition of friends, family, and activists managed to gain enough momentum to get Smith’s case back into the public conversation. Crucial in this was bringing in a new lawyer, who got the court to accept that Smith's original conviction may have been unjust.

Smith’s new attorney, Leroy Maxwell, argues that his case was handled so irresponsibly that it amounted to a violation of his constitutional right to a fair trial. Maxwell also says that Smith’s age was never fairly taken into consideration, as he was tried as an adult.

Two of Smith’s most outspoken advocates are the parents of A’Donte Washington, the boy whose death set the felony murder charge in motion. 

They have never blamed him, nor the other boys, for the killing. Smith, they say, should indeed be punished for breaking into a home and taking things that weren’t his but should never have been held responsible for the murder of their son.


“I feel like he shouldn’t do another day [in prison] and he needs to come home,” said Vernice Washington, A’Donte’s mother, in an interview with VICE News.

Instead, the Washington family blames the officer who pulled the trigger and has pushed for a reexamination of all officers present during the killing of their son. They point to several issues they find in the handling of the incident, including the one piece of body camera footage that does exist, which was filmed from the vantage point of the officer who shot and killed their son. Activists point out that this footage, which can be seen in a VICE News documentary on the case, should have opened more questions about whether the officer’s actions were justified.

Washington’s parents have also put their energy into supporting the Smith family’s pursuit of what they feel is justice for LaKeith.

“I feel like he shouldn’t do another day [in prison] and he needs to come home.”

On that December day in the courtroom, A’Donte's father Andre Washington, who had been subpoenaed and was thus able to enter the courtroom, stood in support of Smith being released as soon as possible.

Andrew Washington, who has tirelessly spoken out in the media both in search of justice for his own son and for LaKeith, said he felt that it was important that people saw that A’Donte’s family supported LaKeith’s.


After leaving the courtroom, he stood next to Smith’s mother, BronTina Smith, as they took questions from reporters.

“I told her I had her back, you know?” he said, in an interview with VICE News. “That I’d be there for you.”

Still, he admitted that it was difficult for him to sit in the courtroom.

“Especially when the judge was bringing up ... how my son was shot, the areas he was shot in, on his body,” he said. “That's still hard to deal with. I deal with it every day.”

“I know it was super hard,” BronTina Smith said, turning to him. “I appreciate you. We appreciate it. My family, my son, everybody.”

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Vernice Washington’s granddaughter points to pictures of A’Donte that adorn the wall of her home. (Jika Gonzalez/VICE News)

For Smith and his family, everything comes down to March 21. He will stand in the same court as he did years ago, with the same judge who sentenced him to essentially a life of incarceration. But unlike his original conviction, his case will not be argued in front of a jury; the judge will make the final decision.

As he prepares for this final push, Smith’s attorney is aware that, like last time, the judge may prevent journalists, and the public in general, from entering the courtroom. That concerns him, as he says having an open process is important to give the public confidence that Alabama’s legal system is transparent and fair.

“There are a lot of people who look like us,” Maxwell said, “especially young black boys, who are distrustful of the system. It’s for a reason. They see someone like LaKeith go to court, with an all-white jury, white prosecutor, white court staff, white judge, and they see he was sentenced like this. Now that we have the chance to right these wrongs, for the press to not be allowed in, for it to be a closed system, it would be a travesty of justice.”


“This case needs public awareness,” he said. “To remove the public from the process, it hurts everyone, not just LaKeith. It hurts everyone.”

He expects that if people are not let in, they’ll simply stand outside, as they did last time, waiting to hear the verdict.

Andre Washington will likely be required to appear in court again. But he makes it clear that he doesn’t need a court order to show up for LaKeith one more time.

“I’ll be there,” he said as he smiled faintly, with a hint of gold glinting from one of his teeth. “No hesitation from me here. I’ll be here.”

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