New life sentence for 1996 murder
Samuel Edward Smith was given sentence as a juvenile
WEST CHESTER >> The man who as a teenager killed a friendly neighbor in order to steal his car was once again ordered to serve a life sentence without parole on Wednesday by a Common Pleas Court judge, who called him an “uncommon and rare” criminal.
“The public will only be protected by him being incarcerated for the rest of his life,” said Judge James P. MacElree II of Samuel Edward Smith, as part of a hearing dictated by recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings concerning so-called “juvenile lifers.” Smith, the judge said, had “earned and continues to earn” the life sentence.
The sentence came after a twohour long proceedings at which Smith apologized for his crime and spoke of how he was trying to better his life. “I wish I could have been a better person, and that would nullify what I did,” he said. “But I cannot make it right.”
Twenty years ago, he bludgeoned his neighbor, David Kenny, a retired teacher and pas-
tor. As he left the courtroom in handcuffs and leg shackles, Smith declined to comment on the new sentence. He will be returned to SCI Greene, the maximum security prison for those convicted of murder.
Kenny, who was 64 and an amputee when he died, was attacked in his home by Smith on May 8, 1996. According to Smith’s confession, he had decided to steal Kenny’s car to drive to Florida. But before carrying out the plan, he decided he would have to kill Kenny because, as neighbors in the West End of Coatesville, they knew one another and Kenny could identify him.
Smith — at the time a petty juvenile offender — went into Kenny’s home with a pipe wrench, and struck him in the head 10 times, shattering his skull. When Kenny remained conscious — begging to know, “Why are you doing this?” — he grabbed a butcher knife and cut his throat. He then struck Kenny as many as 15 more times until he stopped moving.
He then took Kenny’s car keys and some cash from his pocket and drove away, picking up his sister for the trip to Florida. The pair were stopped after a car crash in Delaware and he confessed to attacking his neighbor.
Kenny died several days later on May 21, 1996, at the Brandywine Hospital in Caln.
After his arrest, the county District Attorney’s Office announced that it would seek the death penalty in the case. Smith, in order to escape the possibility of a death sentence, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in October 1996 and was sentenced to the mandatory life term. He was 16 years, 10 months, and 11 days old when he committed the crime, and turned 17 while awaiting trial in Chester County Prison.
In explaining his decision to impose a new life sentence on Smith, MacElree went over details of the crime as well as a recitation of Smith’s behavior while in prison over the past 20 years. Smith had formed a Neo-Nazi prison gang while incarcerated, had planned an escape, and had vowed not to be taken alive if his plot worked.
MacElree also noted that Smith had been diagnosed as suffering from anti-social personality disorder, a condition he said psychologists for both the prosecution and defense said was largely untreatable.
Of the prison escape plot, MacElree noted that Smith “was fully and mentally prepared to kill again” to avoid capture. “I believe he maintains that state of mind. This defendant is indeed uncommon and rare.”
That designation as a unique criminal was necessary to meet the burden establish in a recent decision by the high court as to the conditions under which a person who committed a murder as a juvenile could be sentenced to serve a life term. In other instances, the court ruled, such a sentence would be considered cruel and unusual punishment and unconstitutional.
Three other Chester County residents who committed murders as juveniles have been granted the right to request parole, under terms laid out by the defense and prosecution and approved by MacElree. Smith is the only one of five “teen lifers” to thus far have a re-sentencing hearing.
In his address to the court, which lasted for 45 minutes, Smith, now 36, spoke at length of his experiences in prison, his racism, his love of family, and his change to a Bible-reading Christian who struggles not to use swear words. He offered an apology to members of Kenny’s family who were in the courtroom, as well as member of his own family who had come to see the proceeding.
“I am so sorry for all the pain and loss for both families, his family and my family,” he said. “That is something I live with every day. It is something I struggle with and it is not going to go away.”
He admitted to being part of a skin-head gang in the prison — “tough guys,” as he termed them — and of harboring extreme racial prejudices. He also acknowledged the prison break plot, but tried to downplay it as jailhouse talk that he owned up to when confronted by authorities.
“I wish I would not have taken the paths I’ve taken,” Smith said. “I don’t hate anybody. I am still a racist, I’m not saying I am not. But I am trying to change. I want to be a better person.”
District Attorney Tom Hogan, who led the prosecution at the hearing which proceed over three days in July and October, said the “cruel and unusual punishment” was not “what happened to the defendant, but what happened to David Kenny, theatrically reenacting the bludgeoning and throat cutting.”
Calling Smith manipulative and deceptive, Hogan urged MacElree to re-impose the life sentence because of his psychopathic personality. “The defendant will break the rules when he feels like it,” he said. “He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about it, His views as a white supremacist are particularly dangerous as a threat to authorities, “particularly to law enforcement.”
“The defendant is virtually one of a kind,” Hogan argued. “This is an extraordinarily rare criminal.”
Smith’s attorney, First Assistant Public Defender Nathan Schenker, had argued to MacElree that although Smith was undoubtedly a murderer, he was not alone in the world of juvenile killers who suffer from psychological disorders. Although guilty of misdeeds while in prison over the past two decades, Smith had not reverted to violence and had shown signs of maturing while behind bars. He dismissed Hogan’s argument that Smith was a “criminal mastermind” as “unsupported by the facts and illogical.”
He urged MacElree to grant to Smith the opportunity that had been given to the other teen lifers, “that a time might come when he might get parole.” As he grows older, Schenker said of his client, “his risk to society becomes greatly reduced. Mr. Smith has shown progress over the past 20 years.”
Smith can appeal the decision to the state Superior Court. MacElree said he fully expects such a course to be taken.
To contact staff writer Michael P. Rellahan call 610-696-1544.