Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Within the Walls

"Think About It!"

After the trial, the defense filed several appeals with the State of New York. Most concerned the admissibility of the evidence and statements made by Smith in prior criminal cases. Additional issues presented were the failure of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and the quality of the bite mark evidence. The New York State Court of Appeals dispelled these points by their decision in People v. Smith (63 NY2d 41) decided July 2, 1984.

"The evidence linked defendant to the bite mark on Payant's body. The remaining circumstantial evidence established that defendant had both the opportunity and access to the materials, for killing Payant and disposing of her body. We therefore conclude that the evidence was of such weight and credibility as to convince us that the jury was justified in finding defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

The conspiracy theories offered by the defense were also addressed by the appeals court and rejected.

"The theory posited by the defense both at trial and on appeal is that Payant was murdered as part of a conspiracy among unknown correction officers, who lured her to the eastside corridor area of the institution by the telephone call, murdered in the H block or industry area, and placed her body in the Greenhaven dump truck while it was temporarily abandoned. This theory, which defendant concedes is 'bizarre', takes Payant far from her assigned area, and means that both Payant's murder and the hiding and disposal of her body occurred in relatively open areas to which many people had access. This would have required a truly substantial conspiracy, which had no basis in the proof at the trial."

However, the appeal was not a total failure for the defense team. The court did rule in the defendant's favor on one point, maybe the most important issue of all. In 1983, a conviction in   New York of first-degree murder required a mandatory death sentence. Noting that courts have historically struggled to maintain a "system of capital punishment at once consistent and principled but also humane and sensible to the uniqueness of the individual" (Eddings v. Oklahoma, 455 US 104, 110), the court felt that current New York State law did not follow those guidelines because it did not allow consideration of any mitigating factors in a death penalty case. "Thus, under the standards established by the Supreme Court," wrote Judge Kaye of the State Appeals Court, "any death penalty statute which did not provide for consideration by the sentencer of all relevant individual circumstances would be incompatible with the commands of the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments." Simply put, the court rejected New York State law as unconstitutional and, as a result, Lemuel Warren Smith avoided his date with the electric chair. He was later re-sentenced to an additional life term.

By declaring the death penalty statute unconstitutional, as it applies to lifers in prison, the court placed prison staff in a very uncomfortable position. Many correction officers were vociferous in their opposition to this controversial ruling.  If a lifer inmate wanted to kill a guard, what penalty could he suffer? What would be the deterrent? He was already doing life and had nothing to lose. At his sentencing hearing on June 10, 1983, Lemuel Smith put his feelings on record.

"I got so much time they can't do nothing to me," he said. "Think about it. If I wanted some sex, I could rape, I could sodomize. They can't do nothing to me!"