Attorney Struggled Over Case For Years

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 21, 2008

YORKTOWN, Va. -- Lawyer Leslie P. Smith brooded over what he knew for a decade: information that might spare the life of an inmate on Virginia's death row. He had thought about disclosing it long ago. But back in 1998, he had been told not to jeopardize the interests of his own client.

The case he could not forget was that of Daryl Atkins, who was convicted in a carjacking murder in York County, Va., and whose appeals spurred the U.S. Supreme Court to a landmark ruling that banned executions of mentally retarded inmates. Ironically, Atkins remained on death row in spite of the historic decision, his own mental limitations still under debate.

All the while, there was Smith, a solo practitioner in Hampton, sometimes pondering his vow of silence. He had been the attorney for Atkins's co-defendant. And what he felt he knew was this: His own client had been coached in his testimony to help ensure that Atkins got the death penalty.

Last spring, Smith, 64, unexpectedly decided to raise the issue again, writing a letter to the Virginia Bar. This time, he was urged to tell what he knew, he testified in court. And the outcome of that revelation came Thursday evening: Atkins's sentence was commuted to life in prison, bringing apparent finality to a case that has bounced from court to court for a decade.

In the end, it seemed one man's disclosure had changed everything. Many lauded Smith for coming forward, although others asked why he waited so long.

"The court finds that Leslie Smith's evidence was indeed credible," Circuit Court Judge Prentis Smiley Jr. said Thursday as the low-key Hampton lawyer watched quietly in the courtroom. The judge noted that Smith had "absolutely nothing to gain."

Atkins's own counsel told the court, "He comes forward at great personal cost to himself."

To some, Smith might seem an unlikely man for the spotlight.

After the ruling was handed down, he left the courthouse without comment. A day later, he was working in his office in Hampton, even though it was a state holiday. Not a showman, not a tough talker, Smith has practiced law 37 years -- half real estate, half criminal work. Other lawyers describe him as honest, forthright.

"He's just a pleasant, down-to-earth, plain-spoken kind of guy," said Ron Smith, a Hampton lawyer who has known him 20 years. "What he did was extraordinary, and he wrestled with it a long time."

"Somebody's sitting on death row, and you know there's evidence . . . they don't know about," said Ron Smith, who is no relation to Leslie Smith. "That's an awful situation for a lawyer to be in."

Over his long career, Leslie Smith has handled five or six capital cases, including the one involving Atkins's co-defendant.

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