BRUCETON MILLS, W.Va. — Within a remote federal prison, inside a barren conference room, Will Smallwood tries to explain his violent past by talking about a slice of chocolate cake.
He imagines a decadent chocolate cake with creamy frosting. Maybe as a child, he could sneak into the kitchen in the darkness of the night — when no one was watching — and open the refrigerator door. He could take a knife to cut just a sliver of cake for a midnight snack.
“You’re young and you get away with it,” he says.
So maybe you keep going back to the fridge, he says. Night after night. The tiny slivers turn into large slices. And it becomes a habit.
Until you get caught.
Smallwood, now 24, has plenty of time in federal prison — a 22-year sentence — to think about his past and his future, after a murder he committed in 2014 in the District. He will spend the fleeting years of his youth dressed in a baggy beige jumpsuit, sleeping in a small cell, passing the time by watching TV news and walking laps around the prison yard. His young daughters will be grown women by the time he is free.
Before Smallwood killed, there were warning signs that his violent behavior was rapidly escalating on the streets of Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington. He told The Washington Post that he robbed at least 100 people.
D.C. judges twice sentenced him — for simple assault and robbery — under the District’s Youth Rehabilitation Act, a unique law passed in the 1980s that allows shorter sentences for some crimes and offers offenders under age 22 the chance to clear their records. All the while, he says, he returned to the streets to commit more robberies and sell crack cocaine.
“It’s just a slap on the wrist. And then you think you can get away with bigger crimes,” Smallwood says during a recent interview in prison. “I look back now and I say, ‘Damn, I f---ed up.’ ”
A previous Post investigation revealed that more than 3,000 felony sentences have been handed down under the Youth Act since 2010 — the majority of them for crimes of violence or weapons offenses. The Post identified 121 Youth Act offenders who went on to be charged with murder during that time and discovered that hundreds of offenders have received Youth Act sentences more than once.
States such as Michigan, New York and Florida also have statutes that permit the convictions of young adults to remain confidential, but they exclude the most serious violent felonies. New York also limits the age to 18. Florida bars repeat offenders.
The District’s Youth Act opens the door to all offenders under 22 except murderers, puts no limit on how many times the law can be applied and allows for departures from mandatory minimum sentences for violent gun crimes.
“Every time we would go to court, we would ask for the Youth Act and we got it,” Smallwood says, snapping his fingers. “It’s like, ‘Okay, fingers crossed’ — and you get the Youth Act!”
In many ways, Smallwood was just the type of young man the Youth Act had been crafted to help. He had no juvenile record. He had a supportive family. His crimes were serious but not among the worst in D.C. Superior Court. Yet his story still ended in tragedy.
Despite the presence of the word “rehabilitation” in the name of the law, D.C. courts do not track whether participants are rehabilitated. And there are no explicit programs in federal prisons to treat Youth Act offenders. Smallwood says that outside of prison he received little help other than anger-management classes and a mentor he rarely saw. Judges can order extensive evaluations for offenders before they apply the Youth Act, including interviews with psychologists and social workers, to examine the potential for rehabilitation. But Smallwood did not get one.
Advocates for new approaches to criminal justice say violent offenders need more attention than they get from traditional court-ordered probation and supervision, which is enforced by officers who watch and monitor behavior and collect urine tests. To get at the roots of the problem, the advocates say, more time needs to be spent with offenders in their communities to better understand outside influences and how to address them.
In Massachusetts, a four-year program called Roca targets young men ages 17 to 24 who are at a high risk for prison. The program features “relentless outreach” — knocking on doors daily, if necessary — and offers intensive counseling and job and life-skills training, a spokesman said. Private donors fund the program, and the government reimburses the costs if goals are met for reducing incarceration.
In Chicago, Gary Slutkin founded Cure Violence, an organization that focuses on how violence can be treated like an infectious disease. It uses trained workers called “interrupters” to try to stop the spread. The model has been deployed in neighborhoods in Baltimore, New York City, New Orleans and Kansas City, Mo., among other cities, Slutkin said.
Slutkin sees Smallwood’s violent patterns as akin to an untreated illness.
“It’s just like watching someone gradually develop tuberculosis,” he says. “And he’s getting a little sicker until the moment he’s nearly dead. He’s coughing his lungs out. He’s nearly dead, but you’re doing nothing.
“You’re just watching and waiting until they do something horrible.”
This winter, in her two-bedroom apartment, Testsa Smallwood put up a fake Christmas tree with flashing lights and red garland. There are several wrapped gifts under the tree, but beneath the shiny paper, the boxes are empty.
“Just for decoration,” says Testsa, who is unemployed.
In the carpeted living room, there is no sofa, no table and no place to sit other than a single camping chair.
Every evening, just past midnight, Testsa, 45, pulls up her phone and logs on to an app called “CorrLinks” that allows electronic messaging for federal inmates.
“Goodnight, Lil’ Boy,” she writes to her son, 185 miles away.
Years ago, Will Smallwood lived with her here in the family’s home at Columbia Heights Village Apartments, a sprawling subsidized-housing complex in Northwest.
Back then, the place seemed more like home — with Will and his younger sister, Alexis, sharing a bedroom. For a while, their maternal grandmother lived across the hall.
His parents were separated, but Smallwood says his father was active in his life, and he felt loved by both parents.
When he was 13, his father moved to North Carolina. Will started to get into trouble in junior high. He got caught selling firecrackers to other students. In the ninth grade, he struggled with his schoolwork and was suspended for 45 days when a janitor caught him about to have sex with another student in the gymnasium. He said he was held back a year.
At Cardozo High School, Will studied construction in a program offered there. He was artistic, once carving a wooden birdhouse, family members say. They also proudly tell the story of how he ran into a burning apartment to try to save a woman inside. The woman died in the flames, but neighbors called him a hero.
Smallwood says he has fond memories of his childhood. The family got by on his mother’s public assistance, but he says he did not need much to make him happy.
He struggles to explain how his crimes started. Maybe he was trying to show off for girls, he says. Maybe he wanted to seem “cool” around the neighborhood. Maybe it was because he was tired of not having money.
His first crimes were “jumping” random men on the streets and punching them, just for the thrill. Then came the robberies.
“I was running the streets,” he says. “My mind-set was, if I didn’t get caught, I continued doing it.”
On Sept. 21, 2007, Will, then 15, met Kyera Johnson, a 13-year-old girl in the neighborhood. She was wearing her school uniform. She had on sneakers with no shoestrings and had her hair styled in a side ponytail.
She liked him, and her sister slipped him a piece of paper with a phone number. Soon, they were dating. And too soon, they now say, Kyera became pregnant.
Kyera moved in with the Smallwoods, and the home felt even fuller. Their first daughter, Jay’Niece, was born on Aug. 29, 2009. At 17, Will dropped out of school to care for the baby so that 15-year-old Kyera could keep up her studies.
“I regret it every day,” Smallwood says of the decision to leave Cardozo. “Why did I not finish?”
Instead, he began attending a specialized GED program at the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights. But most of his focus shifted to caring for his little girl.
“The hard times started when we couldn’t really do nothing for the baby, like getting diapers and stuff,” says Kyera Johnson, now 23.
“I got to find a way,” he told her.
She asked him, “What are we going to do?”
He told her not to worry.
Later, he came home with money. He told her that he had robbed somebody.
“You can’t be doing that,” she told him.
But he did not stop.
“It was just an easy way for him to get money instead of doing it the right way,” she says.
Now, the crimes were no longer just for fun.
They were just business.
At 14th Street and Columbia Road NW, a bustling 7-Eleven convenience store was Smallwood’s gateway to the D.C. criminal justice system.
On Jan. 18, 2012, he says, a clerk there falsely accused him of stealing a cookie and was going to press a button to lock the front door. Smallwood says he was carrying a gun and did not want the police to catch him with it.
So he picked up a 12-pack of canned soda and, in an apparent fit of rage, threw it at the store clerk, according to police records. The injured clerk was taken away in an ambulance.
A week later, Smallwood, then 19, was identified, arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault. It was his first arrest.
The angry outburst was no surprise to his mother, his sister or his girlfriend.
Even now, Testsa Smallwood can point out the patched-up drywall in the family’s living room. In two places, Will threw his phone so hard that it broke the plaster.
His sister, Alexis, remembers him ripping off the oven door after he and an aunt had a political disagreement. He would also punch the wall with his fists.
“He would be huffing and puffing,” she says. “He would swell up. His face would turn red. And he would just be pacing back and forth.”
But the aftermath was even more puzzling. He seemed to “black out” during the incidents. Only his grandmother seemed to be able to snap him out of it.
“He would come back and he would never remember what happened,” Johnson says. “He would be like: ‘What happened? Why is my hand bleeding? Why are there holes in the wall?’ ”
Two months after the 7-Eleven arrest, Will Smallwood pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days — with all of the time suspended.
Instead, Judge Marisa Demeo placed him on probation for a year under the Youth Rehabilitation Act. If he successfully served his probation, his record would be sealed.
“What is it?” he asked his attorney at the time.
Smallwood says his attorney explained that the Youth Act is for people who “are not really into violent crime.”
The judge ordered him to attend anger-management sessions and to continue working toward his GED.
Smallwood says he tried, desperately, to find a job.
He printed out résumés, cover letters, his CPR certification and other job training certificates. He hand-delivered packets to the Marshalls department store in Columbia Heights and the Armani Exchange store at the Pentagon City mall. He filled out applications for jobs at CVS, Target, Giant and Best Buy.
He did not receive any responses. So, he says, he went back to the streets for money.
At 7:15 p.m. on June 27, 2012, police officers responded to a robbery call near Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights. They discovered a male victim screaming out in pain and with a bloody and bruised eye.
The victim told police that he had placed an ad on Craigslist to sell a Sony digital camera for $1,100. He said a man had emailed and expressed interest in meeting in the school parking lot. Smallwood says that he was unaware of any Craigslist deal and that the seller approached him in the parking lot and started a conversation about the camera. Smallwood punched the man in the eye, took the camera and ran.
The next day, Smallwood was arrested and charged with robbery. This time, he was not released. It was his first stay in D.C. jail.
“It was different,” he says. “I was looking around. I was nervous.”
Smallwood pleaded guilty in August 2012. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to not charge him for additional crimes.
They said they would not prosecute him “for his role in a robbery of a pizza delivery man that took place on April 7, 2012,” on Irving Street NW, according to the plea deal. Nor would they prosecute him for his “possession of 12 mobile phones” recovered during a search of his family’s apartment.
While awaiting sentencing, Smallwood knew he could be facing significant time — 24 months is the statutory minimum for robbery in the District.
“I would like to apologize for everything that’s been going on and what I done,” he told Judge Patricia Broderick, according to the transcript from the September sentencing. “I don’t want to do it no more. I’m done with everything.”
Broderick implored Smallwood to turn his life around. She issued a 24-month sentence but suspended all but six months. Again, he received a Youth Act sentence.
Apparently, upon sentencing, Smallwood made some kind of gesture or facial expression that irked the judge. He says he does not recall doing it, though he says he might have appeared nonchalant or even smirked.
“I have to tell you, Mr. Smallwood, your reaction is making me feel like I made a mistake and I should have given you more time, because clearly you don’t see how serious this is,” she said, according to the transcript. “This is a very light sentence for this serious a crime.”
“I understand, Miss,” he said. “It was just I ain’t, I, expected the worst but — ”
The judge interrupted him.
“This is not the worst,” she said. “The worst could have been 24 months, period, no Youth Act.”
“I understand, Miss,” he told her.
“And it could have been higher than that,” she said. “It could have been up to 60 months.”
“I understand,” Smallwood said.
“All right?” Broderick said. “This is a break.”
She told him that he would be under probation for three years but that she could opt to end it early if he was successful.
“We’re going to give you some programs so you can have a better life when you get out,” she said. “Someday, I’m going to be really proud of you.”
Broderick declined to comment for this article.
The Bureau of Prisons sent Smallwood about three hours away to Fairton, a medium-security federal prison in New Jersey. Testsa Smallwood says she could not afford to visit. Johnson paid $50 for a ride in a shuttle van. She wanted to take Jay’Niece to visit him.
“It was hurtful, especially when we had to leave,” Johnson says.
While at Fairton, Will Smallwood talked with D.C. inmates and learned some history about the Youth Act. Inmates used to stay in the D.C. area and serve their time at a youth center near the site of the Lorton prison complex in Northern Virginia. The prison closed after D.C. officials — on the brink of bankruptcy — agreed to a federal bailout that involved dispersing the city’s inmates to federal prisons.
As Smallwood tells it, his brief stint in Fairton was a good chapter in his life. He says he matured.
Smallwood and Johnson considered marrying, but Johnson balked at the idea of nuptials behind bars.
“I wanted it to be nice,” she says. “I wasn’t about to get married in no prison.”
At Fairton, Smallwood says, he decided the criminal life was not for him.
“I was straight done,” he says. “Forget it.”
In the winter of 2013, he moved into Hope Village — a federally run halfway house in Southeast Washington — to serve his last couple of months.
Smallwood resumed his GED program at the Latin American Youth Center. Johnson was optimistic. He seemed to be set on straightening out his life.
“But then once he finally got free free and he finally got home —” she says, her voice trailing off. She shrugs.
“He got sucked back into the street life,” she says.
In March 2013, Smallwood began his probation under the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA), the federal entity that monitors probationers and inmates who return to the District.
Following Judge Broderick’s order, Smallwood would need to continue his GED preparation, attend anger-management and parenting sessions, and perform community service. He would also be assigned a mentor.
On its website, CSOSA advertises a 24-week street-level program for young offenders ages 18 to 35 in Columbia Heights, Marshall Heights and Congress Heights. It says it targets those whose criminal histories include violent-crime, weapons and drug distribution charges. It provides psychological and educational assessments, anger counseling and life coaches. Smallwood says he was never placed in such a program.
Smallwood, his mother and Johnson say CSOSA’s supervision efforts were lacking and seemed mainly for show. Smallwood says he met his assigned mentor only a couple of times.
“I couldn’t even tell you what this guy looked like,” he says.
Testsa Smallwood says she remembers a CSOSA officer asking her son to meet him in the parking lot to sign a form verifying the visit, rather than coming inside the apartment.
“These people . . . they come on their accountability tours, but they’re scared,” Will Smallwood says. “I’d be in the house waiting, but they would just call me outside.”
A spokesman from CSOSA, citing federal privacy laws, declined to comment for this article.
The anger-management sessions did not seem effective, Johnson says. Smallwood says the classes were conducted in a group setting and involved responding to hypothetical scenarios.
Finding a job, he says, was nearly impossible. But he vowed not to rob anyone again.
“It’s the lowest form of crime ever,” he says. “You’re just stealing from people.”
He began a new venture: hustling drugs.
Smallwood says he has never used alcohol or drugs, not even marijuana. He never failed a drug test while under supervision. He says he was a model client — on paper.
He completed his 30 hours of required community service at a food pantry. In 2013, he says, CSOSA placed him on GPS supervision for a few months to monitor his whereabouts.
“They thought I was doing the right thing,” he says.
But Smallwood, then 21, had already begun selling crack cocaine on the streets of Columbia Heights.
He was suddenly flush with cash. Johnson saw the $100 bills, kept in a shoe box in the closet.
“Everything was stocked,” she says. “We had diapers, clothes and shoes. The day-care fee was paid.”
During that time, Johnson and Smallwood’s mother say they saw dramatic shifts in his personality. His ego grew bigger. His temper grew shorter.
Johnson remembers the first time she saw him with a gun. He assured her he was just holding it for a friend.
“All I could do was shake my head,” she says. “I’m starting to think, ‘I don’t want this life right here.’ ”
Smallwood’s felony robbery conviction created a new problem for his family. His name was on the lease at the housing complex, and convicted felons were subject to eviction. The complex notified Testsa Smallwood that her son needed to stay away from the apartment or all of them would face eviction.
He and Johnson packed up and moved with Jay’Niece to Northeast, near Ivy City, to live in a house with Johnson’s family.
Smallwood says he stopped selling drugs for a few months in 2014. Johnson recalls him hanging around the home a lot during the day, not doing much of anything. He spent a growing amount of time with Johnson’s brother, Demitrich Jones.
Again, Smallwood began to slip away for hours. Sometimes, late at night, Johnson says, she heard them downstairs, talking about “doing this or doing that” to someone on the street.
She acknowledges that she ignored the warning signs.
Johnson also had a new, welcome distraction. The couple’s second daughter, Zara, was born in March 2014. To provide for the family, Johnson began working at a McDonald’s on Wisconsin Avenue.
The evening of June 3, 2014, was not a remarkable one for Johnson. Exhausted from caring for a 3-month-old infant, she drifted to sleep at about 9 p.m. while watching a movie.
When she awoke the next morning, Smallwood was next to her, asleep.
Over the next two days, he seemed to be stricken by illness, Johnson recalls. He vomited. He complained of a bad headache. He was having weird dreams, and he kept sobbing.
“What’s wrong?” Johnson asked him. “Do you need to go to the hospital? Are you sick?”
He said nothing.
One night, he approached Johnson in their bedroom.
“I killed somebody,” he said.
“Boy, quit joking,” she told him.
He wasn’t joking, he said. He had killed a man.
She did not believe him.
The next day, police officers came to the neighborhood and started knocking on doors. Johnson opened her door to learn that there had been a homicide.
Rashard Raigns, 33, had been fatally shot. Police gave her a flier with his photo, seeking any information about the killing.
Her stomach sank. After she closed the door, she ran upstairs.
She sat alone in her bedroom for hours, staring aimlessly at the walls.
Years before, Raigns had been a prep-football star in Maryland. He went on to play defensive end at Colgate University and even studied abroad in China.
Raigns also had several recent scrapes with law enforcement and had self-reported mental health issues.
On a summer night — June 3, 2014 — Raigns lit a blue candle and spread out his belongings on a green blanket on Fenwick Street in Northeast. He had a laptop he had recently purchased.
At 10:15 p.m., Johnson’s brother saw Raigns and noticed the computer. Jones went home and told Smallwood about what he had seen, according to court records.
Jones grabbed his BB gun, and Smallwood armed himself with a silver handgun. Both wrapped T-shirts around their necks. As they approached Raigns, they lifted the T-shirts to mask their faces.
Raigns resisted and tried to flee. Smallwood fired twice. One bullet struck Raigns in the chest.
The two men fled, leaving Raigns on the sidewalk.
A few minutes passed, and Jones returned to the crime scene to pick up the laptop.
Four hours later, a resident flagged down an ambulance after spotting Raigns on the sidewalk. At 2:42 a.m., D.C. police were called to the scene.
Raigns was dead. The blue candle had been knocked over, and candle wax had spilled and hardened onto Raigns’s clothing, his blanket and the pavement.
Police quickly focused on Smallwood and Jones as suspects. The men had been captured on surveillance videos near the scene, and police published the videos on YouTube. A witness identified Smallwood.
Within a week of the killing, on June 10, police executed a search warrant at Johnson’s house. In the early morning hours, they came inside with guns drawn and quickly handcuffed Smallwood, who was wearing only boxers and socks. Johnson was taken in for questioning.
At first, she said that Will had been with her all night. Then she said maybe he could have left after she went to sleep. Finally, police showed her parts of the surveillance video and she identified Smallwood and her brother, court records show.
Smallwood and Jones were charged with first-degree felony murder.
“Daddy’s getting locked up again?” 4-year-old Jay’Niece asked her mother.
After 10 months in jail, Smallwood and Jones accepted plea deals to charges of second-degree murder. Smallwood admitted to shooting Raigns.
In the D.C. jail, Smallwood lost about 40 pounds. He kept having a recurring nightmare. In the dream, he was upstairs at home with Kyera. He walked downstairs to watch a movie and saw Raigns — floating — near the top of the stairwell.
Smallwood is haunted by the fact that he left Raigns lying there, bleeding out, after he shot him.
“It makes you sick to your stomach,” he says. “I didn’t want to call an ambulance. I regret that. I found out later that he could have lived.”
Before his sentencing, Smallwood’s attorneys from the D.C. Public Defender Service prepared an extensive memo to advocate for leniency. They wrote that his case was a “textbook example of adolescent impulsivity leading to unintended, unexpected, and, for Mr. Smallwood, previously unfathomable consequences.”
The lawyers included excerpts from a New York Times article and scientific studies pointing to research about the development of the human brain.
At the time of the killing, at age 22, “the very regions of his brain that would counteract such behavior were still developing,” the lawyers wrote.
They asked for a 14-year sentence and argued that after Smallwood had reached his mid-30s that “he would not present any real risk” of committing additional crimes.
“The Court need not be concerned that he will ever participate in similar conduct again,” the attorneys wrote.
The memo was accompanied by letters from friends and family members, and photos of Smallwood through the years. In one picture, he is in the hospital delivery room, dressed in scrubs, as he holds his second-born daughter, Zara.
On June 26, 2015, Smallwood and Jones appeared for sentencing in Judge Jennifer Anderson’s courtroom.
“Mr. Smallwood has been treated very leniently by the criminal justice system, and he has taken advantage of that,” prosecutor Veronica Sanchez said before he was sentenced. “He’s squandered the opportunities that have been given to him.”
Smallwood apologized to Raigns’s family and expressed remorse.
“I can’t give them their son, their brother, their uncle,” he said in court. “I can’t do anything like that. I wish I would. If I was able to, I would. I’m extremely sorry for what I did. I understand that what I did was wrong and I deserve whatever, whatever I’m getting.”
The judge was stern with him.
“The thought doesn’t seem to have entered your head that maybe the way to take care of your family is actually to get an education and get a job as opposed to taking it from somebody else,” she told him.
Smallwood’s mother left the courtroom at that moment. She could not bear to hear the time he would get.
Anderson sentenced Smallwood to 22 years in prison. He was 23 at the time. Jones, then 17 years old, received 18 years.
The Allegheny Mountains can be seen from the yard of Hazelton, the medium-security federal prison where Smallwood is serving his time in West Virginia.
Smallwood can reduce his time by earning credit for being on his best behavior. He has already earned 108 days of “good time” credit, according to Bureau of Prisons records.
For that reason, Testsa Smallwood says she only shares positive news with her son. She does not want to upset him or cause him to act out in prison.
Currently, his projected release date is 2034. He would be 41 years old.
Johnson brings Jay’Niece and Zara to visit him about twice a month.
Smallwood tries to teach his oldest daughter a very simple lesson: Be good. Because when you’re bad, bad things happen.
Smallwood and Johnson broke up a while ago.
“I only love him because he’s the father of my kids,” she says. “As years go by, there’s no love, for real. You decided to kill somebody for what? A laptop?”
That question still haunts Smallwood.
“Hurting people and taking people’s life? Snagging someone’s life and playing God?” he says. “I wasn’t myself.”
In prison, he is trying to better himself. He says he is again studying for the GED.
The notion of rehabilitation is a painful topic.
“What help did I get?” he says. “What were some anger-management classes supposed to do for me? I’m still going to be the same person.”
He recognizes that he was given leniency by the system, but he also thinks that he deserved some second chances. He says maybe a steady job could have steered him down a different path.
“Are you rehabilitated now?” a reporter asks him in prison.
He says he knew the exact moment he had been rehabilitated.
It was right after he pulled the trigger.