A different kind of battle
A different kind of hell awaited Smith when he returned to the United States, after he was discharged at Fort Campbell, Ky., and found his way to Atlanta.
The court record of what happened on Aug. 16, 1973, describes a robbery and assault. In Smith’s version, it was an argument with acquaintances at an apartment complex that drew in a neighbor who happened to be an off-duty cop.
“He comes back with a gun, and he puts the gun to my head, and he says, ‘Boy, I’m going to kill you. N-I-G-G-E-R, I’m going to blow your head off,’ ” Smith recalled, spelling out the word he would not bring himself to say.
They struggled. Smith got the gun but not before he was shot in the hip and leg.
“I took the gun. I left the scene, and I went to a service station,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Look, I’ve got this gun. I want you to call the police.’ ”
It was the word of a young black man against that of a police officer. Among the lesser of five counts against Smith was stealing the Smith & Wesson .38 that was used to shoot him. A court document valued the pistol at $75.
“No money, no understanding of the court system — I had a lawyer that I thought was my friend, who entered a plea of guilty on me that I knew nothing about. And when I got to the courts, it was just too late,” Smith said.
Sentenced to five years for aggravated assault, Smith began writing letters — to lawyers, right up to then-Gov. Jimmy Carter.
“I felt bitter,” he said. “Coming from Vietnam, coming from a combat zone, you think, ‘You know, I deserve a little better than this.’ ”
Somehow, his plight caught the attention of Mamie Reese, the first African American woman named to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.
“Several of the parole board were political hacks, but Mamie Reese was really a decent person,” said Allen Ault, a former Georgia Department of Corrections director who is now dean of the College of Justice and Safety at Eastern Kentucky University.
The board was not known to be generous with clemency, especially in a case like Smith’s.
“Typically, they would just reject it on the face of it,” Ault said, recalling that one member insisted that petitioners prove they had a personal relationship with Jesus.
But when Reese, then the board’s chairman, submitted Smith for a pardon under a special program for first offenders, he won it, two years before his scheduled release.
Smith had cleared his record, and he was determined to clear his name. His mother, however, counseled him against it.
“I said, ‘Mom, I want to spend the rest of my life trying to show that this just didn’t happen this way,’ ” Smith said. “She said, ‘Son, look. I know your heart. I know you. I believe what you said. Let it go. It’s just not worth it.’ ”