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Carol Smith fought for justice after daughter Erika's murder in Silver Spring

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010; C01

A fter years of losing one court battle and then another, Carol Smith was dumbfounded in early 2008 when a Montgomery County judge ruled that Anthony Kelly, her 9-year-old daughter's alleged killer, had been found competent to stand trial. It was the first time, six years after Erika had been killed, that she could remember something going her way.

We had planned to marry in the summer. Now, with Kelly's trials suddenly coming up -- for two rapes and two murders -- we rushed it through in six weeks, a joyous if hastily arranged celebration.

The pretrial hearings and motions came almost weekly by late spring, and Carol attended every one. The rape trials began in early summer. Kelly, clearly delighted to be sparring with Montgomery County state's attorney John McCarthy, had gained weight. His barrel chest loomed above a belly. His voice was flat, just above a rasp. He rocked his weight from foot to foot during his opening argument.

Look at my criminal record, he told the jury. I steal cars and I sell drugs, but I don't rape women. He said he'd broken into plenty of houses and seen women "buck naked," but he did not bother them.

But his DNA matched that of semen obtained from the 60-year-old rape victim. Prosecutors convinced the jury that he had walked past the woman on a Silver Spring sidewalk one night in March 2002, hit her in the face with the butt of his pistol, raped her, broke her wrist and dislocated her shoulder. Kelly was also convicted of forcing a 20-year-old woman in Wheaton into a stolen Cadillac at knifepoint and assaulting her in a nearby wooded area.

Erika and her father were killed on Aug. 6, 2002. Now it was late in the summer of 2008.

Finally, the murder trial loomed.

The giggling little girl

Erika had a high, soft voice. She was prone to giggle fits. She loved cats. She was shy, except at home with her family. She read 25 books the summer before she died -- the young accountant in her kept records -- and loved to curl up in bed with one and a bowl of popcorn. "Just one more chapter, Mom," she'd call out when Carol would tell her it was bedtime.

She liked to dance but didn't have much rhythm. She could be impetuous. She cried when scolded.

From the age of 6, Erika wrote reports, novels and plays. She wrote these just for herself, in her room, an only child and her prodigious imagination. Carol found many of them only after Erika died. "My First Pet: Written and Illustrated by Erika Smith." "Tobreka Nation's Mayflower Journal." An untitled episode for "SpongeBob SquarePants." ("Cene one: It is snowing in Bikini Bottom.")

I have in my lap her notes for a story she was writing when she died. It is about "Cindy Vortex," who is 10. Cindy's best friend is Libby and her enemy is Jimmy.

"Bio: Cindy used to be the smartest kid in class until she moved across the street from Jimmy now she's the second smartest and she's none too happy about it." A few lines later, Erika notes that Cindy "pretends to like Nick Dean," but that she actually "likes Jimmy, though she'd probably die before she told anyone."

I like running my finger over the pencil marks on the page. Her fingers were here, I think. It is as close to holding her hand as I can come.

The violent end

She died like this, according to the blood-spatter expert, the DNA scientists, the detectives:

Greg and Erika came back to his two-story home on Columbia Boulevard in Silver Spring about 9 p.m. after bike-riding that late summer evening. Most of the house lights were on. The downstairs television was playing the Nickelodeon channel. Kelly apparently parked his truck down the block and scouted the house. He put on the beard and costume, dropping the packaging in the back yard and a hairnet in the driveway. He probably gained entrance through an open back window while Greg and Erika were upstairs and out of earshot.

A few minutes after 11 p.m., Greg was on the telephone with a friend, Kamala, in his bedroom with the door open. Kamala could hear Erika giggling in the background, scampering between his room and hers, which was across a small landing at the top of the stairs.

Then Kamala heard Erika scream: "DADDY! DADDY!"

"ERIKA!" He screamed back.

The line went dead.

Evidence indicates that Kelly had reached the top of the stairs when Erika saw him. When Greg burst out of his room, it created a standoff. Kelly retreated to Erika's room. Her bruises indicate she may have tried to run and he pulled her back. He backhanded her in the face with the butt of the gun, knocking her to her knees. He probably stood behind her, threatening to shoot if Greg advanced.

Something happened. Kelly shot Erika at point-blank range. She died almost immediately. He shot Greg once.

Greg backed up and Kelly advanced, firing again and again, empty shell casings charting his path. Greg was spun around by the force of the bullets, spitting aspirated blood onto the opposite wall. He stumbled into his bedroom and collapsed on his stomach. Kelly fired twice more into the backs of his legs.

Kelly then most likely fled downstairs and left through a kitchen window, leaving wig fibers on the sill.

Greg was somehow still alive.

He dragged himself across the landing to his office, leaving bloody handprints on the baseboards. He called 911 and gave a dying description of his attacker.

When police kicked in the door minutes later, Greg was sprawled on the landing.

"Where's my daughter? Where's my daughter? Where is she?" Greg was spluttering, testified officer Charles Swinford. Greg most likely was in shock.

Swinford stepped around Greg, nearly slipping in the blood, and saw Erika a few feet away in her room. Another officer picked her up and sprinted for the ambulance.

The officer had to step over Greg with Erika's body. Greg looked up to see the rag-doll-limp body of his child.

"I felt he gave up then," Swinford testified. The packed courtroom was silent.

In the witness box

At 10:48 a.m. on July 29, Carol took her seat in the witness box. She had been called to the stand by the prosecutor to testify about the last time she had seen them -- the morning of the shooting, when Greg dropped her off to have her car serviced.

Kelly, in his role as his own attorney, would have the opportunity to cross-examine her.

We had discussed each question he was likely to ask, and how she might respond. This encounter would be a footnote to the trial but a key moment in the rest of Carol's life. It would be her only chance to confront the man who killed Erika.

Kelly, seated at the defense table and flanked by two deputies, looked Carol in the eye and fired a question.

"Miss Smith," he began, "did Mr. George [Greg's first name] Russell tell you he knew somebody by the name of Anthony Kelly?"

We had figured he would try to show that he had no tie to Greg.

"Greg did not keep such company," she said, just as she had prepared. "No, he did not."

"Did your daughter ever say it?"

We had prepared for this, too.

There are not many strategies open to witnesses on the stand, but there are a few, and we had noticed during the rape trials that Kelly became flustered when witnesses did not immediately do as he requested. If he asked this question, Carol had decided she would stare him down until the judge intervened.

She stared at Kelly without blinking.

He rephrased the question. "Did your -- did your daughter, um, ever say she knew anyone by the name of Anthony Kelly?"

She continued to glare at him. Kelly nodded at her as if trying to compel her to speak. A juror coughed.

Fifteen seconds. The packed courtroom was silent. Eighteen.

"Ma'am, that's a yes or no question," Judge Durke G. Thompson said softly.

Carol's voice, shockingly loud: "My daughter was 9 years old! The only time that she would have ever known anybody by the name of Anthony Kelly was when you shot her. If you didn't tell her your name -- "

"Ma'am," Thompson tried to break in.

" -- she wouldn't have known your name."

"Ma'am, if you'd kindly answer the question."

"No, she did not."

"Thank you," the judge said.

Carol was glowering at Kelly. He was staring back, furious.

"I have no more further questions," he said.

A surprise defense witness

Prosecutor McCarthy rested shortly thereafter. He had piled on the DNA evidence. He had introduced ballistics evidence that showed the same gun that was used to kill Greg and Erika had been used to kill tourist Katie Lynn Hill in D.C. three days later, and Kelly's ties to that shooting. He produced the Bible from Greg's house that had been recovered from Kelly's truck, and so on. Now, after six years of wanting to represent himself in court and six days of damning testimony, it was Kelly's turn.

He might call experts to attack the DNA evidence. Perhaps he'd try to paint Greg as a man with enemies.

He didn't do any of that. He called just one witness.

"I call to the stand Carol Smith."

McCarthy whipped around to us, his eyebrows rising. We were just as blindsided, but Carol didn't pause. She was up and on her feet, striding to the witness stand. She sat down and glared at him.

Kelly leaned forward over the defense table.

"My question to you, Miss Smith -- do you believe everything that the police and the prosecutors tell you?" The tone was contemptuous.

"I believe that everything that the police and prosecution has said in this case is true."

"Have you ever heard of the Innocence Project in New Jersey?" he shot back, referring to the nonprofit group that works to help the falsely convicted.

McCarthy objected; the question was not germane. His objection was sustained.

"Did the prosecutor tell you they never found the murder weapon on me?"

Another objection; hearsay. Sustained.

Kelly paused.

Maybe he realized Carol was not going to collapse. Maybe he realized it was over.

But I doubt it. Anthony Kelly was a convicted rapist and was a fingernail away from a double homicide rap. People like that don't quit because they've lost, because it's not about winning and losing. It's about who you can hurt and who you can't. Carol Smith had steeled herself. She was beyond his reach.

"I have no further questions" is all he said.

The trial -- suddenly, stunningly -- was over.

Thompson adjourned the court. Kelly was led to his cell. Carol came down from the stand. When I hugged her, the back of her shirt was soaked.

The rest of the afternoon passed in juror deliberations, then most of the next day. We walked around the courthouse. We ate at the Thai place a block away. It was hotter than hell. Then we were summoned back -- the verdict was at hand.

The courtroom was packed. Erika's family and her three best friends were there. Greg's entire family had come up from North Carolina, his friends from D.C., and Kamala, the friend who had heard Erika's last scream. The sister and brother-in-law of Katie Lynn Hill were there.

The judge and jury came in and sat down. The room was hushed.

The forewoman stood.

"Guilty," she said.

And then, the words falling like a cascade, to every single charge in the indictment:

"Guilty. Guilty. Guilty."

'We did it!'

It was pandemonium in the hallway outside. Everyone was crying and slapping backs and Carol and I hugged and John McCarthy and fellow prosecutor Kathy Knight came out and there was a long round of applause. We all went downstairs to the lobby. John and Kathy and Carol and Greg's cousin David talked to the reporters and television cameras.

"We did it!" Carol kept saying.

At sentencing a few weeks later, she stood up to carry out what she felt was one of her last maternal tasks: to see to it that Erika's killer would never emerge from prison.

"Judge Thompson, my name is Carol Smith, and I am Erika's mom. I'm a very proud mother," she began. She had dozens of pictures blown up to almost poster size, and began showing them to the judge. She and Erika bicycling on the beach in Florida. Erika as an infant, wearing -- as much as eating -- a bowl of spaghetti. Greg and Erika at birthday parties. Erika in bed, reading a book and eating popcorn. It was as if she was trying to bring her child back to life in an antiseptic courtroom.

Near the end, she held up a shocking photograph: Erika's corpse on a table, her ankles splayed out, her favorite stuffed animal on her chest, her face a ghastly version of its former beauty.

"This is my 9-year-old in a funeral home, laying dead. This is what Anthony Kelly did to my child."

She held up Erika's tiny school uniform so the judge could make a mental picture of how little the child actually was.

"This is my beautiful Erika," she said, her voice breaking. "She was everything to me. She was my entire heart."

She sat down.

Thompson sentenced Kelly to the maximum: Two life sentences without parole for the murders of Greg and Erika. Two more life sentences for the rapes. Another 100 years for related offenses.

A break in the clouds

One overcast Sunday afternoon a few months after the trial, with winter coming on, a group of Erika's friends and family met at her old school. After she was killed, her classmates had planted a memorial butterfly garden for her. It needed tending.

Her classmates Sam and Eliza and Katie and Niya and Kyle came, as did their parents, and some of Carol's friends she hadn't seen since high school. We all brought sacks of mulch, fertilizer and flowers. Pansies, mums, tulips, hyacinths. We hacked away old bushes, planted new flowers. There was lots of laughter and hugs and Erika stories.

It was a good day in a bad stretch.

In the months after the trial, depression had come clawing back at Carol, the predictable but somber lull after such a turbulent surge of adrenaline and anger. She needed sleeping pills.

Then, slowly, it seemed as if the fever broke.

She called me one wintry day at the office. "I feel good," she said. And added: "For no reason!"

Last spring, she started a new job and in some ways, a new chapter of her life.

We have a busy house, my daughter and her friends running in and out, and a rambunctious Rottweiler puppy to keep up with. If it is hard to describe the descent into depression, it is equally hard to describe the ascent back into the light of day. It's like describing ice thawing.

"I can feel myself going on," she said one evening, when we were sitting in the kitchen. "And it's okay. I don't feel like I'm leaving Erika." She woke up one morning, beaming: "I dreamed I was in Erika's school. She came to door of her classroom and hugged me. I got a hug!"

I had rarely seen her so happy.

A month or so later, through the mysteries of surrogacy, we were pregnant.

We are expecting twins this month, a girl and a boy.

"I still believe," she said the other day, "that miracles are possible for me."

Finally, a resting place

Erika Georgette Smith is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Aspen Hill.

"SMITH" is centered across the face of the granite. Under it, and slightly to the left: "Erika 1993-2002."

It is in a sunny spot near the back, just off the main road that circles through the place. There are stands of hardwoods all around. There are deer and rabbits, and one morning I saw a fox at the edge of the woods. It is still hard for Carol to go there, so Pearl, her sister, and I most often go by. I like to go in the late afternoon and fuss with the flowers, then sit, my back against the tombstone, and tell Erika what her mother is doing and what her cousins are up to and how much we miss her.

The deer come out at night and eat all the flowers. We think Erika would like that.

Sometimes her friends leave small stones or trinkets at the headstone, perhaps to show Erika they were there, to show that they remember the girl with the long black hair and the pretty brown eyes who once held so much promise for herself, her family and her world.

Anthony Kelly is incarcerated at North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md. He is awaiting trial for the killing of Katie Lynn Hill. Appellate courts have rejected his appeals in the Erika Smith and Greg Russell cases.

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