Karla Smith smiles easily for someone who has seen the worst that people have to offer.
Her three rambunctious sons help. “I go home to my kids every night and love them and talk about how lucky we are to have each other,” she said.
Their joyous images surround her at work. But pinned to the corkboard beside her desk in the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office is also a photograph of a little girl in a pink shirt who was beaten so badly that she needs a wheelchair and feeding tube.
The prosecutor has spent more than a dozen years steeped in the horrifying details of abuse, five as chief of the family violence division, bringing a mother’s eye and an unflinching approach to a job she held longer than many could handle.
“There are not a lot of people who want to do it,” said longtime detective Dean Cates, who has worked with Smith. “It affects you in everything you do, especially when you have children.”
Cates said his five years as a homicide detective were “significantly easier than the two investigating the child abuse cases.”
Now Smith, 42, is headed for a new role. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has chosen her to become a District Court judge, and she is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday.
Defense lawyer David Martella, who trained Smith as a prosecutor in Montgomery and has been going up against her in court for years, said Smith looks for justice, not just lockups.
“Karla was always very good and very diligent in making sure that no one got prosecuted who didn’t deserve to get prosecuted. That’s a judgment call, but she’s always shown good judgment,” Martella said.
Smith, who started her career as a prosecutor in Prince George’s County in 1997 and moved to Montgomery three years later, has approached cases with the same sense of purpose she saw at home in the 1970s.
Smith’s mother, Betty, was a third-grade teacher at Beall Elementary School in Rockville. Her father, John, helped run Howard University’s School of Social Work and was chief of staff for pioneering black congressman Augustus Freeman Hawkins, whose Los Angeles district had been hit by the 1965 Watts riots. For a school project, Karla interviewed Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first African American congresswoman.
John W. Smith had been a foster child and eventually was taken in by relatives with slave roots in Montgomery. During a family reunion trip to Canada while Karla was in law school, she saw a copy of a bill of sale for members of the family that came from the Montgomery courthouse.
Soon, Smith will preside over cases in a new, nearby courthouse — the first African American woman appointed to Montgomery’s District Court, according to Administrative Judge Eugene Wolfe. Judge Sharon Burrell, the first black woman appointed as a Circuit Court judge in the county, preceded Smith to the bench in 2008.
“It’s an awesome responsibility,” Smith said. “My sole job is to be fair and impartial and work hard and make all the people who paved the way for me to get there proud.”
In her job prosecuting some of the most wrenching crimes, Smith has had to be both relentless and comforting, knowing how to put victims and detectives at ease.
Smith was the prosecutor on Detective Kristie Taylor’s first case seven years ago. A man had raped and photographed his girlfriend’s teenage daughter.
“When you’re sitting on the stand and you look out and you see her, you at least know she’s there, you know she’s in your corner and you know she’s fighting to get the same victory you want,” Taylor said.
The man showed no remorse, blaming the girl and her mother in court, Taylor said. He was sent to prison for decades.
Smith takes satisfaction in long and deserved prison terms. But another measure of success does not come in numbers.
“The best feeling for me always is to turn around and look at a victim at sentencing and see what ultimately is a look of relief on their face,” she said. “The victim knows that somebody listened to me, and somebody believed me, and what happened to me was wrong.”
The children she has helped stick with her.
There are the two boys who endured torture on top of molestation. Their mother’s boyfriend made them hold their arms out to their sides as he forced them to perform sex acts.
The man was caught molesting the mother’s young sister. After an aunt whisked the boys away from that home, they revealed that they had told their mother that her boyfriend was abusing them, too, but that she had done nothing to stop it.
Smith and Cates teamed up to put the man in prison for 20 years.
“Then I prosecuted the mother. And I was happy about that,” Smith said.
The mother lost her parental rights, and the boys are being raised out of state. Once they were in a safe place, one of the boys, who had been diagnosed as learning disabled and as having hearing impairments after the trauma, was found to have neither, Smith said.
Smith has also reached beyond the courtroom.
One evening early in her tenure in handling abuse cases, she stopped by the Nordstrom store at Montgomery Mall. As she stood at the cosmetics counter, she saw a filthy boy or girl — she couldn’t tell which — with hair that looked like it had been yanked out. Clothes hung off the child’s body.
“The mom was standing at the MAC counter, with her makeup done, her hair done, her nails done, her designer jeans on, and just snapping at the little kid,” Smith said.
Disgusted, she called the unit’s chief, Laura Chase, and asked what she could do. Chase’s answer shocked her: Maryland had no law criminalizing child neglect.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, we got to do something about that,’ ” Smith said.
That was more than a decade ago. In October, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) announced that Maryland had shed that “dubious distinction,” after the General Assembly made child neglect a misdemeanor, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Smith, who worked closely with Brown, legislators and other advocates to help get the bill passed after earlier attempts failed, credited O’Malley with making it a priority and Del. Galen R. Clagett (D-Frederick) with pursuing it for years.
Chase said Smith had jumped in to do groundwork and organizing. “She really rolled her sleeves up and got it done,” Chase said.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy said Smith also played a key role in helping the O’Malley administration push lawmakers, including skeptical members of the Legislative Black Caucus, to support a bill allowing authorities to collect DNA from suspects charged with — but not yet convicted of — violent crimes and burglaries. The law, widely supported by prosecutors and police, is being challenged.
“She’s a very trusted voice,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also pointed to Smith’s work with Montgomery’s Family Justice Center, a resource that helps abuse victims navigate the legal system, and her talks with high school students about dating violence.
In many ways, Smith remains idealistic, believing that the abuse she sees among adults can be slowed by talking to young people now. “Nobody ever sits down with kids and says — truly says to them — this is your body. This is okay behavior, this is not okay behavior,” she said.
Still, the horrors she’s seen have made Smith “hyper vigilant” about who can spend time with her children. She and her husband, D.C. lawyer David Cohen, question the kids and talk about what’s appropriate.
“If I’m a little overprotective, so be it. I just think, if something happens, that’s a hard bell to un-ring,” Smith said. “It’s kind of the price of seeing the bad side of things, seeing what human beings can be capable of.”