Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Within the Walls

A Scapegoat

C. Vernon Mason
C. Vernon Mason (Corbis)

C. Vernon Mason, who would later join attorney Alton Maddox and Reverend Al Sharpton of New York City for the Tawana Brawley hoax of 1987, was chosen to defend Smith. At that time, Mason was the general counsel for the National Conference of Black Lawyers. But Mason would not be alone for very long. In the nearby Fishkill Correctional Facility, Abbie Hoffman, the political activist from the 1960s, was in custody on an unrelated drug charge. Through conversations with other inmates, Hoffman heard about the Payant murder case. His own interest aroused, Hoffman wrote a letter to his old friend, New York City attorney William Kunstler. In it, Hoffman said, "It looks like a frame-up, Bill. You ought to get into this."  Apparently, that was enough for Kunstler. "I can say Abbie is a pretty good observer of life," he told reporters the next day. In early June 1981, William Kunstler joined the effort to save Lemuel Smith from the electric chair.

The strategy of defending Smith was formulated the day William Kunstler took over the defense. Long before 1981, the New York City-born attorney had a reputation of taking on unpopular and controversial causes. Known initially as a civil rights attorney and activist, Kunstler represented the Chicago Seven in the conspiracy trial of 1970 and defended inmates charged in the bloody prison riot at Attica in 1971.  So when he accepted the Smith case, it seemed natural to plant the seed of official misconduct as early as possible.

William Kunstler
William Kunstler (AP)

In his very first press interview, Kunstler outlined his thoughts on the case. "With a white woman, a black inmate," he mused, "there's enough smoke around that anyone with a sensitive nose like mine would do something about it."  He pointed out that in a case like this one, there was a tremendous amount of pressure to get a conviction. "Smith is terribly vulnerable," he told reporters, "If you want to pick a victim, that's precisely the kind you want. Someone no one cares about."  Mrs. Mildred Smith, Lemuel's mother, from Schenectady, echoed those beliefs. "I wanted these lawyers because I feel he was framed," she said to reporters from the Poughkeepsie Journal. "My son is black," she continued, "and naturally we're always discriminated against."

But there was more. Kunstler raised the specter of offical corruption. He hinted that perhaps the situation was not as simple as authorities would have the public believe. During the investigation of the murder, guards at Greenhaven were transferred to other institutions without explanation. Furthermore, there were persistent rumors of an ongoing inquiry into drug dealing by prison guards at Greenhaven. It was therefore feasible, Kunstler said, that guards were involved in killing one of their own. "This supposedly happened at 1 in the afternoon in broad daylight," Mason pointed out to the press, "How could this have been done?"

But no action of the defense team raised such fury as when Kunstler announced that the victim's reputation was fair game in a courtroom. Donna Payant's background would have to be examined to see what role it played in her death. There were already rumors of Payant's infidelity at the prison and Kunstler was ready to exploit those issues. "We don't say these things are true," he later told a judge, "We don't want to embarrass her husband or Mrs. Payant's memory. However, we have a client who is facing the death penalty." The victim would have to be dragged through the mud to help save her killer.

Greenhaven Prison walls
Greenhaven Prison walls (Author)

In the meantime, Smith was transferred out of Greenhaven and shipped over to the Fishkill facility, a distance of about twenty miles. On the morning of June 10, he was brought to Dutchess County Court for a court appearance. When he was asked whom he wanted for an attorney, he claimed ignorance. "I don't understand what's happening," he told the court, "I haven't seen an attorney yet."  That was because at that very moment, Kunstler and Mason were holding a press conference outside Fishkill prison.

"There is no probable cause," Kunstler breathlessly told reporters in front of the barbed wire gates about his new client, "He is, in essence, a scapegoat."

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