Man charged with killing woman given less than a year in jail

The Sun News - - Local - BY ALEX LANG alang@the­sun­

A man ini­tially charged with mur­der­ing his girl­friend will serve less than a year in jail af­ter plead­ing guilty to a lesser charge.

In 2017, po­lice charged Justin Penn with mur­der and kid­nap­ping in con­nec­tion to a car crash on S.C. High­way 22. Penn was the driver and his pas­sen­ger She­me­ria Smith, 19, was killed in the wreck.

Penn, 22, ap­peared in Horry County Cir­cuit Court on Thurs­day to plead guilty to reck­less homi­cide.

On May 17, 2017, Smith’s fa­ther re­ported she was be­ing held against her will, Se­nior As­sis­tant So­lic­i­tor Lau­ree Richard­son said. When 911 dis­patch­ers called Smith, she also said she was be­ing kid­napped.

Wit­nesses saw Penn driv­ing above the speed limit on High­way 22, and he and Smith were ar­gu­ing in the car, Richard­son said. Penn lost con­trol and wrecked.

How­ever, when phone records were an­a­lyzed, they showed Smith asked Penn to visit and the two planned to re­turn to their home state of Alabama, Richard­son said.

Smith moved to the Myr­tle Beach area about a week be­fore the wreck, and there was a dis­agree­ment with her fa­ther about how long she in­tended to stay.

“The state was not in a po­si­tion to go for­ward on the mur­der charge,” Richard­son said.

Penn faced 10 years in pri­son on the reck­less homi­cide charge, and the state of­fered no rec­om­mended sen­tence.

Penn said he wanted to apol­o­gize to Smith’s fam­ily, but they were not present for Thurs­day’s hear­ing. Smith’s fa­ther was hav­ing surgery and pro­vided a let­ter for the sen­tenc­ing.

The crash both­ers him ev­ery day, Penn said. He added there isn’t a day where he doesn’t think about Smith.

“I hon­estly wish this was a big dream,” Penn said. “I never saw my­self here.”

Penn’s mother, Latonya Hodo, said that her son en­cour­aged Smith to re­turn to school af­ter she dropped out and helped her find a job.

“This is a young lady my son loved,” she said.

Horry County Judge Ben­jamin Cul­bert­son sen­tenced Penn to two years of pro­ba­tion, and he will re­ceive credit for the 274 days he served in jail. He will be al­lowed to serve his pro­ba­tion in Alabama. If his pro­ba­tion is re­voked, he faces four years in pri­son.

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