Murder Within the Walls
The trial of Lemuel Smith opened in Dutchess County Court in Poughkeepsie on January 20, 1983. The special prosecutor, William Stanton, had studied the evidence in the case and was ready for the contentious atmosphere of a William Kunstler defense. The D.A.'s office knew that Payant's reputation, the conduct of the guards at the facility and the state's investigation into Greenhaven would be the issues to be explored. However, prosecutors were sure that Lemuel Smith was the man who murdered Officer Payant. "I will stand before you at the end of the trial," Stanton told jurors, "and have no hesitancy in asking you to find Lemuel Smith guilty."
Beginning with the testimony of guards to describe the procedures at Greenhaven, Stanton outlined the situation at the prison at the time Donna Payant arrived in April 1981. Witnesses told the court that the prison resembled a miniature city that contained its own hospital, supplies, schools and support staff. They said it would be very possible for an unattended inmate to walk through the prison corridors pushing trashcans or emptying containers into dumpsters. The officers who were with Donna when she received the mysterious phone call also testified. "She said there was some sort of mix-up," C.O. Claude King told the jury, "she'd get it straightened out and probably be back in a minute."
Prosecutors also put an inmate on the witness stand who said he heard the defendant make an incriminating admission. Robert DiBona, serving a 20-year sentence for a series of armed robberies in Long Island, was incarcerated at Fishkill Correctional Facility in May 1981 when he had a conversation with Lemuel Smith. "He was in an emotional, tense state," DiBona said to hushed court room. "He said that it had been on his mind for a long time that he was driven and couldn't keep himself from doing it... that he should never have made the phone call and deserved to die!" Kunstler tried to discredit DiBona by showing that he just wanted better treatment in exchange for his testimony. But DiBona denied it. "The statements pertain to acts so disgusting and so low I didn't feel I could live with myself," he said in explaining why he decided to testify.
Teddy Goodman, the inmate who lingered in the alcove outside the chaplain's office on the day of the murder, also testified. When Stanton showed him a photo of Donna Payant, Goodman had no trouble with the identification. "This is the woman I told you I saw go into the chaplain's office with Smith," he said. It was damaging testimony and the defense knew it. Kunstler later said that Goodman was a "very smart cookie; he got the best deal I've ever seen offered to anyone!"
Following Goodman to the stand was C.O. Rahilly who, since the murder, had problems of his own. Granted immunity from prosecution, Rahilly testified about his own substance abuse over the years and narcotic sales within the prison walls. "I did bring in a quantity of drugs for which I expected to be repaid," he said. Rahilly also admitted to selling drugs outside the prison for years. Kunstler told reporters later that he had "never seen a drug dealer of such proportions." But Goodman was clear about his memory of the day of Payant's murder. He said that he was inside the chaplain's office when he heard a banging on the door. When he opened the door, he saw Lemuel Smith standing in the doorway with a plastic bag under his arm. Smith walked past him and into the rear office. Several minutes later, Smith emerged carrying a large metal drum. "I heard it hit the floor with a thud when he was out of my view," Rahilly said.
After a month of testimony that slowly pieced together the puzzle of how Donna Payant could have been attacked and killed within Greenhaven's walls, the stage was set for the most important and damning testimony of all.