Va. Teen Guilty of Capital Murder in Double Slaying

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Dale City teenager was convicted Monday of capital murder in the fatal shootings of a mother and son in 2008 in their suburban home, crimes a prosecutor called a "family's worst nightmare."

Xavier Pinckney cannot be sentenced to death because he was 17 when he shot James M. Smith, 19, a college student who had just returned home for a holiday break, and Smith's mother, Jean, on Dec. 19, 2008. The U.S. Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for juveniles, so the crime carries a punishment of life without the possibility of parole.

After the verdict was delivered, Rick Smith, Jean Smith's husband and James's father, said he and his family take some solace in knowing that Pinckney will go to prison.

"This was a tremendous step for us in that we can get some type of justice for Jeanie and Jim," Smith said. "One of the biggest traits they shared was this unbelievable love for the people around them."

During the day-long trial before Circuit Court Judge Mary Grace O'Brien, prosecutors laid out the details of how Pinckney, then a junior at C.D. Hylton Senior High School, set out to steal valuables to sell for cash and ended up shattering a family that is beloved in the community.

Thinking that nobody was home, Pinckney climbed through a window of the Smiths' Dale City house that December afternoon, prosecutors said. James Smith, a student at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., who had just finished a trip with his a cappella group, had arrived home late the night before and was asleep on a couch.

Prosecutors said Pinckney had already stolen two guns, family heirlooms kept in the master bedroom, and had loaded one before he spotted James Smith. In a written confession, Pinckney told police that he kicked something and woke Smith. He said he shot Smith "out of reaction." Prosecutors said the teenager was shot point-blank between the eyes.

As her son lay dying on the couch, Jean Smith, 39, a volunteer at the local elementary school and at Hylton High, arrived in her car, prosecutors said. Pinckney told police he ran outside but returned to fetch a jacket he had left behind. Jean Smith, who Pinckney feared would recognize him, had entered the house and was holding the phone to call for help when Pinckney shot her in the ear.

Pinckney left the house with the two weapons, a laptop, James Smith's cellphone, some ammunition and a blue bag, court papers say. The stolen items were worth less than $1,000.

Connor Smith, the Smith's middle son, told the judge that he returned home from school soon after with a friend. Thinking that his brother was asleep, he went upstairs to change and watched part of a movie. A little later, he decided to wake his brother.

"I went downstairs to wake him up, kick him off the couch, so to speak," Connor Smith testified. "I noticed there was a lot of blood." Conner Smith said he called his mother's cellphone and heard it ring on the table. As his friend called 911, he ran through the house searching for her but didn't see her body beside her bed.

Prince William Police Sgt. William Burke said a neighbor told detectives about a tall, black teenager she had seen on the quiet cul-de-sac the afternoon of the slayings. The police showed the woman school yearbooks and, after four hours, she picked out Pinckney's photo.

Defense attorneys conceded that Pinckney committed murder, but they argued that the crime did not rise to the level of a capital case. They said that he thought the house was empty when he walked in and that he intended only to steal.

Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said that if Pinckney were a year older, he would have sought a death sentence. "In my opinion, the death penalty offers more solace and more closure," he said after the trial.

Rick Smith said that, before the tragedy, he and his wife were looking forward to spending the holiday with their four children. Most days, Jean Smith was asleep when he headed to work about 6 a.m. But the morning of her death, she called to him.

"She just looked at me and said, 'Today is going to be a great day,' " Smith recalled from the witness stand.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company