SUNDAY EDITION | After 54 years, Kentucky's longest serving inma - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | After 54 years, Kentucky's longest serving inmate has chance for release

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LA GRANGE, Ky. (WDRB) -- For as long as anyone can remember, two black-and-white pictures have hung on Willie Gaines Smith’s nursing room wall at the Kentucky State Reformatory. The photos show the world’s biggest movie star the last time he was free: Marilyn Monroe.

Now 76, Smith is Kentucky’s longest serving inmate, having entered prison at age 22 on August 31, 1960, two years before Monroe died and weeks before John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took part in the first televised presidential debate.

Despite being deemed insane as early as 1963, Smith remains in prison, having served nearly a decade longer than any other current Kentucky inmate and believed to rank among the tops in the nation. The average prison sentence for a murder conviction in the United States is seven years.

His co-defendant, who was also convicted of murder and sentenced to death for killing a Lexington store clerk during a robbery, was released on parole in 1981 – a point Smith made repeatedly in letters to the state parole board. But the board told Smith in 2004 it wouldn’t see him again, ordering him to serve out his life sentence.

“I’ve been in here long enough,” Smith said in a recent interview, in which he was at times lucid and other times unintelligible, unable to say, for example, how long he had been in prison or how old he was. “I’ve served it out.”

As he prepares to mark his 54th year behind bars next month, a new state pilot program has raised the possibility that he may sometime be released.

The Kentucky General Assembly has approved a program to parole some infirmed inmates, provided they meet certain criteria, such as not being a sex offender or on death row and is dependent on others and a low risk.

The project would save money for the state, which pays millions each year taking care of aging prisoners, by granting some inmates medical parole to private nursing homes where the federal government would pay most of the bills through Medicaid. For inmates like Smith, it costs $182 a day for care.

Kentucky Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson makes the ultimate ruling on which inmates will be paroled; the parole board must follow the decision.

Lisa Lamb, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said Smith is among a list of inmates who have qualified for the pilot project. Thompson is reviewing his case.

The problem, officials say, is even if Smith or others are granted medical parole, it will be extremely difficult to find a nursing home to take in an inmate, given the liability.

“The challenge would be to find a nursing care facility to take him,” Lamb said.

When a reporter asked Lamb about the program in front of Smith, he quickly responded that he didn’t want to go to a nursing home.

“I want to go home,” he said, then recalled his address as “5th Street in Lexington."

 Serious mental illness

Some experts say Smith should have already been released.

Louisville defense attorney Ted Shouse, who has worked for the state Department of Public Advocacy and Kentucky Innocence Project, reviewed Smith’s prison file for WDRB and concluded that Smith seems to have “fallen through the cracks."

“He should have been released in the 1980s,” when co-defendant Hassie Cane Martin was paroled. “Why has he served 54 years? … Having a mental illness does not make you ineligible for parole.”

But Smith’s mental illness and finding a place for Smith seems to have been a challenge for years.

In 1980, shortly before Martin was paroled, Smith’s case manager wrote that “parole plans were discussed with Mr. Smith” but his family “has displayed no interest in providing a home.”

Smith’s family could not be reached for comment.

The parole board numerous times cited his mental issues as one of the reasons for refusing to release him.

And in 2004, the board cited the seriousness of his crime and prior felony convictions in ordering Smith to serve the rest of his life in prison.

Ed Monahan, head of the state’s Department of Public Advocacy, said Smith’s case is an example of why the department has sued the Kentucky parole board.

“The parole board does not have the constitutional or statutory authority to impose life without parole sentences upon persons that our legislature and courts have deemed eligible for parole, but that is what the parole board is illegally doing by giving serve outs.”

That lawsuit, which also claims the parole board’s decisions are arbitrary and don’t follow Kentucky law, is pending in Franklin Circuit Court. Jennifer Brislin, a parole board spokesperson, said she could not comment on pending litigation.

Also, some experts say Smith’s case is troublesome because has been locked away in prison for more than half a century despite having being diagnosed with serious mental disorders.

“It staggers my mind that he wasn’t paroled in some way,” said the Rev. Patrick Delahanty, who recently retired as a prisoner advocate for the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. “There are any number of places in Louisville where people with mental disabilities can live. The system just didn’t work for this gentleman -- which is tragic.”

In 1976, the Kentucky Justice Department recommended that Smith’s needs could not be “properly met in the prison environment,” that he didn’t pose a security risk and transferred him to a state psychiatric hospital. He was later returned to prison; no reason for the transfer is mentioned in prison records.

“Prison is not the place at all for people who are mentally ill,” Delahanty said. “That doesn’t mean they should necessarily be on the street … but we’re just not creative enough to come up with the most decent solutions as far as I can tell.”

Yet others point out that Smith was involved in a brutal crime -- : robbing and murdering gas station clerk Olin Alexander -- and was initially given a death sentence.

Aaron Smith, warden of the La Grange prison, said that while it is a “sad case in some ways” that Smith has been in prison since 1960, it shouldn’t be forgotten that a man was killed and his family severely affected.

“While you have compassion on one side, you also have compassion on the other,” Smith said. “It’s a two sided thing.”

And, as James Park Jr., one of Smith’s former attorneys, said in an interview, spending his life in prison “is better than the alternative (of execution.) He’s still alive.”

Also, the warden said it would be tough for Smith to adjust to life outside of prison after 54 years, especially with his physical and mental issues, which he said are being treated right now.

“It’s a different world than it was when he came in,” and Smith doesn’t have a lot of family support, the warden said.

Smith said no family or anyone else has visited him in prison, which officials confirmed for as many years back as possible.

“I haven’t heard from any of my family for a long time,” Smith later told other inmates while sitting outside in the prison yard, starting to cry. “I guess they don’t love me anymore.”

Product of violent family

WDRB learned of Smith’s case when it requested a list of the longest serving inmates in Kentucky from the state Corrections Department. Smith has been incarcerated nine years longer than the next longest-serving prisoner and a dozen years longer than the one after that.

There is no national database, but experts say he appears to be one of the longest-serving inmates in the nation. A man in Iowa has been in prison since 1956.

Smith’s criminal file is missing from state archives in Frankfort and no records exist of parole hearings from that time.

WDRB reconstructed the events of Smith’s crime and subsequent incarceration through court of appeals decisions, old newspaper clippings, interviews with Smith’s attorney and his prison file, among other sources.

No one disputes that Smith and Martin went to rob Brown’s Liquor Store in Lexington shortly before midnight on March 18, 1960, but both claimed the other fired the fatal shot that hit 62-year-old Alexander in the temple. He died several hours later. 

Smith and Martin were arrested in Cincinnati the day after the killing. Martin said Smith shot the clerk because he knew and recognized him. Smith claimed he had already left the store when he heard the shot.

Smith claimed, according to his appeal, that his confession to the robbery was obtained by coercion, that police knocked him down, threatened him, held him without sleep or communication with anyone until he admitted the crime. Police denied any mistreatment of Smith and said he talked freely after his arrest. A judge found Smith’s statement was voluntarily given.

A psychologist testified that Smith’s intellectual level was “dull” and his IQ, according to a test he had taken at a reformatory for delinquent youths in 1954, was between 79 and 83. That is below the normal range, but above the level now considered to be mental retardation.

A 16-year-old girl testified at trial that she saw Smith holding a gun on Alexander and Martin taking money from the cash register about five minutes before the shooting was reported. An FBI special agent told jurors the bullet taken from Alexander’s skull was fired from the gun identified by the girl as being held by Smith.

Another witness testified he heard Alexander pleading for the men not to kill him. Smith told jurors he went into the store and asked Alexander for a pint of gin and Martin then came in while the clerk’s back was turned, holding a .45-caliber pistol. Smith testified, according to reports at the time, that Martin beat Alexander with the gun after getting money from the register. Smith said he left the store and heard a shot, with Martin running out and throwing the pistol to him.

“I asked him, ‘Did you kill that man’? and he said, “Naw, I didn’t kill him,” Smith testified.

Smith was tried a few months after the crime and a Fayette County jury convicted him and sentenced him to death after a two-day trial.

A newspaper story at the time said one of Smith’s attorneys, Gibson Downing Jr., asked for a verdict of manslaughter, with a maximum penalty of 21 years.

Besides Smith’s testimony, the rest of the defense was designed to show “mitigating circumstances” for Smith’s behavior, with his other attorney, James Park Jr. telling jurors his client was “a product, so to speak of our public institutions.”

In and out of trouble most of his life, Smith lived in an orphans home at times, was in and out of jail and had below average intellect.

Park, who is 81-years-old and retired, said in a recent interview that Smith’s father was “a bad, bad individual” and “growing up in that family was hard” for him.

“He was a product of a violent family,” Park said.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Mansfield, who is now deceased, told jurors a death sentence would be justified, that a psychological report showed Smith would not “accept responsibility for his acts." Jurors came back with a death sentence recommendation in less than three hours.

Smith stood quietly, showing no emotion, looking each juror in the eye as they confirmed the sentence, according to newspaper reports.

Pleas for freedom

While Smith was sentenced to die by electric chair, on June 4, 1963, then-Gov. Bert Combs suspended his death penalty “because of insanity,” according to Smith’s prison file. He was sent to Central State Hospital in Louisville for treatment.

Examinations of Smith showed he was schizophrenic and the Department of Corrections commissioner recommended an “indefinite stay of execution” until Gaines became sane.

Because of his psychotic state, according to the chief of the medical staff of Western State Hospital in Hopkinsville, Smith was “unable to reason, was living in a different world and was at that time not able to understand the meaning of the death sentence or its consequences.”

In fact, the doctor believed Smith had never understood the consequences of the death penalty.

But Park, one of Smith’s attorneys, said he believes Smith was competent at the time he stood trial.

“We didn’t have any clue there was any substantial mental problems,” Park said recently, adding that he realized during the appeal process, however, that Smith was “having mental problems” in prison.

Park said Smith sent him odd letters and learned from prison officials that he had “gone around the bend.” The defense attorneys then asked for a psychiatric evaluation in 1963.

In 1967, Smith was removed from death row by Gov. Edward T. Breathitt because of his mental condition and given a three-year reprieve.

In 1970, the commissioner of corrections wrote Gov. Louie B. Nunn asking that Smith be permanently removed from death row.

And in 1972, Smith’s sentence was reduced to life in prison following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that at the time capital punishment was unconstitutional.

During this time in the 1970s, Smith began what was to be two decades of communication with the state parole board, requesting release and struggling to find out why he remained in prison.  At times, Smith’s letters were well written, neat and sensible.

“Eighteen years being away from society and my family should be enough to pay for what I did,” Smith wrote to the parole board on Oct. 26, 1977. “I don’t know how much I can do for society but I would like to be a law-abiding citizen and be free to see my family again.”

At other times, Smith’s letters were difficult to read or made wild claims, including that he lived in Washington and worked for the president.

In a 1985 letter to the Appeals Court, Smith said he had not heard from his parents, asked for a pardon and maintained that he was not guilty.  That same year, he also apologized for his behavior at a previous meeting with the parole board, saying he was frustrated for being turned down so many times, and requested that he be released to Eastern State Hospital in Lexington.

“My conduct at the last meeting cannot be justified. But hopefully the board will show empathy for me and allow another” hearing, he wrote to the board. “I feel that I am mentally competent and able to conduct a sensible interview at this time.”

By 1990, Smith acknowledged to the parole board that he was guilty, but said 33 years spent in prison was enough and those he had been convicted with had been released and “have did something with their lives. I’m only asking to have the same opportunity.” Only one person was convicted with Smith.

Five years later, in one of his last letters, Smith admitted to “the atrocious crime I committed at the age of 22” and acknowledged that he had at times been psychotic and “more mentally impaired than I need to be.” Smith said he was working towards getting his G.E.D. and displaying the “appropriate remorse” for what he’d done.

No correspondence from Alexander’s family could be found in records related to the case. No family members were able to be reached for comment.

Shouse, a high-profile defense attorney, said that having a mental illness should not make someone ineligible for parole. He said Smith could have been paroled to a half-way house or psychiatric center.

In a 1989 letter to the parole board, Smith said he was writing to places in Lexington and Louisville about “suitable home placement” if he were to be released.

Harry Rothgerber, a former First Assistant Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney, was a member of the parole board in the 1980s and said that while he doesn’t remember Smith, his mental competency would likely have played a role.

“If a person with acute psychosis is in prison and has been convicted of a crime of violence, there was no way we as a board were going to grant them any leniency,” said Rothgerber, adding that back then, there wasn’t a choice to release someone to a psychiatric center. “At the time, to us, a parole was a parole and they were released from prison. We weren’t going to do that to a person with a psychosis.”

And the parole board repeatedly mentioned Smith’s mental deficiencies in denying him parole.

A denial in 1984 noted that Smith told the board “his job and home placement was with President Reagan in Washington. (Unverified.)”

Smith wrote one of his last letters to the parole board in 1995, saying he had been rehabilitated and wanted to get a home and job and be a “proper” citizen.

“God had forgiven me & now I am asking that you … give me another chance at life as you live it!”

Model inmate

Now confined to a wheelchair and reserved, Smith mostly answers questions with a simple “Yes” or No.”

He denied having robbed or killed anyone and remembered little about his trial.

“I didn’t pay attention to the trial,” is all he will say about his conviction. “It sent me down the road."

His days are spent watching TV - he enjoys “Gunsmoke” - playing Bingo, attending church on Saturday, doing arts and crafts and talking with others in the nursing facility, including his roommate of two decades.

While he was disciplined several times for minor infractions in the 1960s, the number of his disciplinary incidents dropped significantly over the years and a 1987 classification found he had no history of institutional violence.

He was assigned as a janitor in a dormitory and was a member of the Alcoholics Anonymous program in prison, according to his records.

“He is absolutely one of the most model type inmates we have,” said Glen Dotson, the nursing facility’s unit administrator. “He is well liked by the guys who live here and those who work here. He’s a model guy, doesn’t cause any trouble.”

Smith does not know his current age or how long he has been in prison, though he knows who the president is and can recall his address in Lexington before he was convicted.

Dotson said Smith’s needs are well met and the nursing environment he is in is clean and staffed by nurses and a psychiatrist.

But Smith said he has served enough time. When asked what he missed most about the outside world, he gave a one-word answer.

“Freedom.”

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