Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Within the Walls

The Verdict

By the time the case went to the jury, they were offered only two choices: acquit or find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, a capital offense. Attorneys on both sides were in agreement on that point. "Lem wants to go all or nothing at all," Kunstler told the press. During his summation, the 62-year-old attorney appealed to the jury's sense of responsibility in a death penalty case.

"For once in your life, you have the power of life and death in your hands," he said to the six man, six woman jury, "Legally that power is bestowed on very few. You have it. Use it wisely so that you can walk away from this with your heads held high."  Kunstler also challenged the prosecution version of events on the day of the murder. There were still many questions about the case, he said. "Consider the total implausibility of the crime taking place the way the prosecution says it did," he said. And again, the specter of a conspiracy among correction officers was raised by the defense. Kunstler said it was possible that guards killed Payant because she had knowledge of drug activity at Greenhaven or because of her romantic involvement with other correction officers.

Overlay of Smith's teeth on Donna Payant's breast
Overlay of Smith's teeth
on Donna Payant's breast
(Dr. Neal Riesner)

Prosecutor Stanton, however, stuck to the proven issues in his summation. He said conspiracy theories were offered by the defense because it was the only evidence they had. "They just threw these things out, hoping one or two of you would latch on to them," he told the jury.  "There was another witness in this case," Stanton said, "Donna Payant. She came into the courtroom the only way she could-through photographs taken at her autopsy." Stanton referred to the all-important bite mark impressions on the victim's breast. "Through it, she is telling us, 'the defendant is the one who beat me, the defendant is the one who bit me, the defendant is the one who killed me!"

At the end of the day's proceedings, when Smith was led out of the courtroom, he told reporters: "If they got any sense, they'll acquit me!" The jury received the case for deliberations on April 17. For the next four days, jurors contemplated the evidence. On the morning of April 21, a verdict was reached. Smith was found guilty of murder in the first degree and faced a mandatory death sentence. Stanton remarked, "I had no doubt from the start that Smith was guilty!"

Newspaper headlines after verdict
Newspaper headlines after verdict
(Poughkeepsie Journal)

After the verdict, Smith attempted to shake the hands of prosecuting attorneys. All declined. "He killed this woman, he's killed others," one attorney later told reporters, "To shake hands at that point would have been an insult to Donna Payant's memory and what he did to her. Yes, I turned my back." As correction officers took Smith out in handcuffs, he said to no one in particular, "I feel good. I have God's peace. I didn't do anything." Smith, however, was unable or unwilling to explain how his bite mark was found on Donna Payant's body.

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