Michelle Smith Advocates for People on Death Row, Yet She Feels Hope

She sees change coming to Missouri

Dec 13, 2023 at 6:00 am
Michelle Smith says she learned compassion growing up in St. Louis' Peabody Darst Webbe projects.
Michelle Smith says she learned compassion growing up in St. Louis' Peabody Darst Webbe projects. MONICA OBRADOVIC

Michelle Smith's family didn't have a lot. Smith, now 47, grew up during the 1980s and '90s in what she calls "the projects" of St. Louis. There, the crack epidemic ran rampant. There was violence, gangs and open drug use by her peers and their parents — which sometimes turned fatal.

"I saw a lot of dead bodies growing up," Smith says.

But there was also community. And even though her family struggled to put food on the table, Smith says she'd come home from school to find her mom feeding neighborhood kids and teenagers. She fed even the ones she knew were the source of trouble.

"She wouldn't throw away the youth just because they were doing something bad," Smith says.

That compassion made a mark on Smith, and it has stayed with her during her work with some of Missouri's most condemned convicted criminals.

The state of Missouri has executed six people in the past year and a half. Smith knew them all.

In a lot of ways, Smith has the worst job you could imagine — even if she doesn't view it that way. Death, trauma and the anguish of shattered lives surround her each day. As co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, much of Smith's work involves humanizing, and advocating for, death row inmates accused of the most heinous crimes.

In the past year, Smith and her organization have stood behind a man who beat a six-year-old girl to death, a registered sex offender who raped and murdered her ex-girlfriend, a man convicted of killing his girlfriend and her three children, and more. She also runs a nonprofit, Missouri Justice Coalition, which advocates for better conditions for a group that most of society is all too happy to forget — people in prison.

It's grueling work. But not because Smith finds it hard to stand up for convicted killers, or because she despairs about the systemic injustice she sees. No, at the core of everything Smith does is deep understanding, grit and empathy. There's more to these people than their crimes, she insists. And Smith knows, possibly more than anyone, how easily one's life can get swept into the criminal justice system — whether they're guilty or not.

"All of the injustice I see around me, I just want to do something about it," Smith says.

What that "injustice" entails may be the opposite of what most Missourians would think. Missouri is one of the most pro-death penalty states in the country. It has the fourth-highest per-capita execution rate out of all U.S. states, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Four people were executed by the Missouri Department of Corrections in 2023 — the highest yearly tally in Missouri since 2015, when then-Governor Jay Nixon signed off on the execution of six men.

Smith's work with Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty involves frequently communicating with people the state will almost surely administer a lethal injection to. By the time they've been killed, she's grown to consider several of them friends. And she's there for their families, often serving as a literal shoulder to cry on.

She can't help but feel anger and grief, which culminates to a weight that at times, she says, can be overwhelming. But when asked if she ever holds back to protect herself from the near-inevitability of these people's deaths, Smith seems surprised by the question. "I've never felt that, or even had an inkling of it," Smith says.

She can't hold back, and she can't be cynical either, she says.

"I think if I gave up hope, that would make me into a person who didn't believe in the power of humanity," Smith says. "And I do."

click to enlarge A photo of Kevin Johnson sits on Michelle Smith's office bookshelf. - MONICA OBRADOVIC
A photo of Kevin Johnson sits on Michelle Smith's office bookshelf.

It is almost exactly a year after Missouri executed Kevin Johnson when Smith agrees to meet a reporter for an interview in her home office. St. Louis County is home base for Smith, who works in an apartment packed with files, books, protest supplies and vinyl chairs that give her living room an almost corporate feel.

Inside, a giant map of Missouri hangs on the wall, with each of the state's prisons marked. On a bookshelf, in between a book on abolitionist organizing and "We Charge Genocide," a 1951 petition presented to the United Nations on racism in the U.S., sits a portrait of Johnson. The black-and-white picture shows Johnson with his head down, his hands folded to his chest in a prayer position.

As a 19-year-old in 2005, Johnson murdered Kirkwood police officer William McEntee by shooting him multiple times, with the fatal blow an execution-style shot to the head.

Johnson's case garnered national attention for multiple reasons. The brutality of McEntee's murder had shocked St. Louis. But a special prosecutor later appointed to look at the case alleged Johnson's prosecution had been tainted by racism and sought to vacate Johnson's death sentence.

Johnson's age at the time of his crime also fueled requests for clemency. Courts have since changed how they sentence youthful offenders. Johnson also had documented psychiatric disorders, which may have changed his sentencing in more recent years.

Smith and Johnson spoke and wrote to each other often after she first reached out nine months before his death, and she got to know his teenage daughter during that time. "I care very much for his daughter and family," Smith says.

A large part of Smith's work involves supporting family members of people being executed. Smith picks them up from airports, sets them up in hotels and helps them find transportation to Bonne Terre, where all executions in Missouri take place. But mostly Smith and her colleagues, including co-director Elyse Max, provide emotional support.

"Even if you have a huge church community or a huge family, they're not necessarily who you can talk to about your kid getting executed," Max says.

Max still talks to the mother of Amber McLaughlin, who in January became the first openly transgender woman in U.S. history to be executed. McLaughlin, 49, was put to death for the murder of Beverly Guenther. McLaughlin, then known as Scott, raped and stabbed Guenther to death in 2003.

In Johnson's case, Smith is close with his daughter, Khorry Ramey, who with Smith's encouragement recently completed a leadership development program called Dream Justice Cohort.

Smith babysits Ramey's one-year-old, Kaius. She was also there when Ramey had to move from her home in Kirkwood. After Johnson was executed, people started driving by the house honking their horns, throwing middle fingers and stealing yard signs with supportive messages for Johnson on them.

"She's been a great help in my life," Ramey says of Smith. "When I'm having a mental breakdown or something like that, I can always call on her."

One year after his lethal injection, Smith remembers Johnson as hilarious and "truly a character." She still chuckles about things she remembers him saying.

By the time of his execution, Johnson was far different from the 19-year-old who murdered a cop. Most people executed by the state spend 20 or more years in prison waiting for appeals and seeking clemency. Those years can lead to growth and change. "The person being executed is not the person who committed the crime," Smith says.

Some Missouri death row inmates, including Marcellus "Khaliifah" Williams and the late Leonard "Raheem" Taylor, have found religion. Johnson, in addition to becoming a dedicated father and mentor to younger incarcerees, authored three books and became a model prisoner who took on leadership roles. McLaughlin realized her identity as a woman and came to terms with her guilt.

Taylor's death was a hard blow for Smith. The 58-year-old was executed on February 7 for the 2004 murders of his girlfriend and her three young children. Governor Mike Parson had refused a request from Taylor's attorneys and the Midwest Innocence Project to convene a board of inquiry to review his case, despite Taylor's claim that he had been 2,000 miles away at the time of the murder of Angela Rowe and her three children.

Smith is confident this won't repeat with Williams. Williams' strong case for innocence was the subject of an RFT cover story in 2022. Williams was convicted of the 1998 murder of former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle, but in 2016, testing on the handle of a knife lodged in Gayle's body found no match with Williams' DNA. Hairs and footprints found around Gayle's body did not match Williams either.

Williams was five hours from death when former Governor Eric Greitens decided to stay his execution and launch an inquiry into Williams' innocence — an effort Parson dissolved this year. (A lawsuit argues he did not have the right to do that without the board of inquiry first issuing its findings.)

Still, Smith believes Williams' attorneys will save his life. In the meantime, Smith says Williams has remained patient.

"He's the calmest, most intelligent, logical person in the whole world," Smith says.

He's also a poet who sends Smith poems via the Department of Corrections' email system. In a November 5 email, Williams, a devout Muslim, wrote "bismillah" (a greeting that means "in the name of God") to Smith, and then, with no other preamble, a poem he'd titled "Survival and Strawberry Jam."

she hurried back to their Saturday morning for with her comfort toy in hand within little brother guarded the sugar bread laid out on his alphabet mat like a good soldier following a command shhh ... they both listen for dad just bibi the cat investigating their couch pillows and bedsheets pad

unimpressed, she disappears with a dash lotus style they sit and softly giggle at a secret that now they were invisible and safe from his wrath little brother looks up at her then to the sugar bread and they both quietly laugh it's time but not before they say a prayer for mommy not to be sad "liiike this" she turns her hands palms up like uncle Ahmad had

satisfied with what she said, she gives him the bread and oh boy is he glad not biting into hers, consumed with his happiness but also the not knowing how long will it last? Much too young to be burdened with thoughts of survival coupled with a traumatic past with her mind already shifting to round two of sneaking in the refrigerator for the strawberry jam.

Through an innocent childhood moment, the poem seems emblematic of the rough childhoods many of the men on death row share. While Smith says her childhood wasn't necessarily a bad one, she can relate.

The sight of people doing drugs or selling them was common, she says. Gangs had permeated the community and some of the kids she went to school with were killed, sometimes by each other.

Her parents never did drugs, but they were both alcoholics, Smith says. There were times she and her brother, Michael, would have to carry their mother home from places where she got too drunk.

"Neither of us ever drank or smoked or anything because of that," Smith says.

Smith says she and brother "just existed as best as we could." She was a nerd, she says with a laugh, and the oddball of the neighborhood because all she wanted to do was stay at home and read or watch Bob Ross. As an adult, her brother, a tall man known as "Big Mike," coached sports for the city's Recreation Division, which he'd done since he was a teenager. He died in 2021 due to cardiac arrest.

For all her parents' struggles, Smith grew up "with a spirit of community and helping others."

"That's why I am the way I am now," she says. "My mom was exactly like that."

click to enlarge Kevin Johnson, left, was executed in November 2022. Marcellus Williams, right, hopes to avoid the same fate. - JEREMY WEIS/MO DOC
Kevin Johnson, left, was executed in November 2022. Marcellus Williams, right, hopes to avoid the same fate.

Smith doesn't like to bring attention to herself, something she made clear multiple times while talking to the reporter writing this story. But when she speaks about going to school at Peabody Elementary, there is no way to beat around this brag: "I wasn't just smart, I was considered like a child genius."

There was nothing lower than an A on her report cards. She tested higher than every other kid in her grade level on standardized tests. Most kids liked to play, but reading books, especially those by Judy Blume, was much more entertaining for her. The word "potential" was used a lot around her.

After the first grade, Smith says school officials wanted her mom to allow her to skip second grade. But for whatever reason (Smith still doesn't fully understand), her mom said no.

"She didn't fully comprehend what they were saying," Smith says. "From her limited understanding of education, you just went to every single grade."

Smith points to this decision as one of the most pivotal moments in her life. When she reached sixth grade, spokesmen from Saint Louis University came to her school and announced that all seventh graders who graduated high school would get a full ride to the university. Smith would have been one of those students had she skipped second grade.

"I could have been somewhere else. I could have been someone else," Smith says.

In retrospect, Smith sees her story as emblematic of a larger truth in the City of St. Louis.

"I think kids are so demonized in our city and other places," Smith says. "But no, these kids have potential. They just don't have anybody to nurture it."

Smith earned a GED after having a baby at 18, who she raised with the help of her mother. Nearly a decade later, she was able to enroll at Fontbonne University, where she studied business.

She was a year away from earning her degree when another education-related decision altered her life for the worse. She needed a loan to complete that last semester. Her parents didn't have credit, so she turned to a friend to help her find a cosigner.

"I didn't have that foundation of family being able to make sure I was OK or take out loans or credit," Smith says. "A background of generational poverty hinders those sorts of things that young people do."

Her friend filled out her father's loan information without his knowledge, Smith says. Years later, when he found out, the dad reported it as fraud.

At the time, Smith knew nothing about the law. She ended up pleading guilty to the fraud charge even though she didn't fully understand why she was being charged.

Once she was incarcerated in 2012, things changed for Smith, who was 35 at the time.

"I vowed to figure out what happened to me," Smith says. (Ironically, after a car accident incapacitated her, she'd never even finished that final semester of college.)

She started studying law in her prison's library, where she later got a job as a law clerk. Early on, the legalese was confusing. "It was not meant for regular people to understand," Smith says.

The first person Smith ever helped in the criminal justice system was a woman who felt her sentencing was calculated incorrectly — and Smith discovered that it was, partially through the help of a law clerk in another Missouri prison, Maurice Davis.

"I started writing to Maurice and explaining to him I needed help understanding a few things," Smith says. "He was the first person who helped me understand how to read the law and how to research."

They continued writing to each other for years. Eventually a relationship formed, and they're still partners today. Davis, who was convicted as an accessory to a 1997 double homicide in Kansas City, has an innocence case of his own. He and Smith can't afford lawyers, Smith explains, so Davis does his own legal work, and Smith drives to Kansas City to file documents on his behalf.

"She's a freedom fighter at heart," Davis says of Smith. "That's why I love her."

But her own freedom didn't last long. Smith was back in court in 2018, accused of embezzling three months' worth of Social Security disability payments. The charge accused her of stealing $2,754 — which she says was because she failed to promptly report a new job while she was laid up in the hospital.

Normally, disability overpayments are handled by the Social Security Administration outside of court. Yet Smith says she was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison because of her record and a determined prosecutor. She's still making her restitution payments on the $4,000 she was ordered to repay.

After she was released in 2020, activism wasn't the first item on her agenda.

"I definitely wanted to change the system, but I knew I needed to pay the bills," Smith says.

When she was working for an insurance company, a few friends sent her a job listing for Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Smith didn't think she'd get it. The job description for the racial justice coordinator said a college degree was preferred, and Smith didn't have that.

But Max, who now co-directs the organization with Smith, says she saw something in her.

"We want folks that are closest to the problem because they're closest to the solution," Max says.

While the death penalty takes up much of her time, prison conditions and advocating for the innocent are also a central focus. Smith started the nonprofit Missouri Justice Coalition after realizing there was no statewide advocacy group for Missouri's incarcerated population and their families.

Over the past month, Smith has been traveling around Missouri for a "town hall tour" to raise awareness of problems in prisons and empower inmates' loved ones to advocate for more humane conditions. The town halls take place in communities that contain prisons.

The tour comes after the Department of Corrections, or DOC, implemented new restrictions that prevent Missouri inmates from receiving books from friends or family. A year earlier, the DOC banned people in its prisons from receiving paper mail. The goal was to curb drug use in prisons, but it's made a massive impact on the mental health of incarcerees, Davis says.

"Some people will never have a picture to hold in their hand of their children or parents," Davis says. "Holding a picture of a loved one is really important."

That's why it's important for people in prison to have someone on the outside to advocate for them, people like Smith. Davis says he filed a grievance about the mail policy, but it could take a year for it to go through. "The DOC isn't going to do anything, but if the outside was to get involved, these things could happen faster," Davis says.

Smith has done the tour and all of her advocacy despite a rare hereditary bone disease called osteocondromatosis, which causes benign tumor-like growths to form in her wrists, knees and ankles.

Smith has dealt with the disease for her whole life, but in her mid-40s it's taking more of a toll on her mobility, and she walks with a cane. Long days on her feet exacerbate her pain; sometimes, she'll work from her bed for a few days afterward.

Yet there's seldom a criminal justice protest Smith fails to attend. And living with a disability has hardly hindered her advocacy work; if anything, she says, it's made her more cognizant of issues in prisons — especially issues endured by marginalized populations.

"I remember being in prison when a smoke alarm would go off, everyone would have to go outside and stand for three hours," Smith says. "They didn't care that I was disabled, or that for the next four to five days I was barely able to move because my disability was so aggravated from standing outside for three hours."

There's hardly a person on Missouri's death row that doesn't have a disability of some sort, be it mental, physical or intellectual. While Smith rarely presents these disabilities as an excuse for their crimes, she says death is still not the answer.

click to enlarge Michelle Smith, founder and director of the Missouri Justice Coalition, speaks to protestors.
Monica Obradovic
Michelle Smith, founder and director of the Missouri Justice Coalition, speaks to protestors.

Smith and her colleagues feel a change is coming soon.

Max, her co-director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says abolishing capital punishment has gained strong Republican support in recent years.

"I think we're really about to flip the tide with the pro-life movement wanting to take on the death penalty," Max says.

Indeed, a Republican, Representative Tony Lovasco of St. Charles County, filed a bill during Missouri's last legislative session to end the death penalty. Lovasco recently told the Kansas City Star he plans on re-filing the bill next year.

Lovasco's measure is more "symbolic" than anything, Smith says, but her organization is lobbying hard this legislative session to rid Missouri of its so-called "judicial loophole." The state is one of two states where if a jury does not come to a unanimous verdict for the death penalty, the decision falls to the judge.

"A lot of times, Republicans are more libertarian, and they think the loophole is judicial overreach," Smith says.

Other states have implemented unofficial moratoriums where attorneys general don't file motions to set execution dates and governors don't sign off on death warrants. Others can't get the drugs to carry out executions as pharmaceutical companies don't want their products associated with such a dark purpose.

In a much darker vein, Missouri may simply run out of people to execute. Death sentences have become decreasingly common in recent years, with only one person, Craig Wood, receiving the sentence in the past five years.

Max looks to Virginia, which became the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty in 2021 after no new death sentences had been imposed for 10 years. Just two people were on death row at the time of Virginia's abolition. Their sentences were commuted to life without parole.

"The really sad fact is that they ran out of people to kill, and we're almost there," Max says. "We only have 10 people eligible for execution on death row."

The days of executions are always hectic, Smith says. They're filled with calls from reporters, vigils organized throughout the state, drives to Jefferson City to deliver petitions to the governor's office and drives to the prison in Bonne Terre for vigils or "execution watches" outside of the prison there, where supporters gather on a nearby farmer's property to pray, sing "Amazing Grace" and show support for whomever's death is on the docket that day. Attendees are often religiously minded folks who travel to the prison on a charter bus provided by the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

After each execution, Smith says she's left with anger. Not anger at a specific thing or individual, she says, but all the things that led to why each person committed their crimes in the first place.

"My feelings always go back to how our society has failed people so much, and this is that final failure of the system against someone," Smith says.

After some executions, Smith says she sits in her car to "feel it" for some time. The two-hour drive back to St. Louis is always a battle. "You try not to cry because you got to see the road," she says.

Smith also feels like a failure — that all the work she did failed to result in the reprieve she so desperately sought.

She hasn't been alone in failing to earn reprieves. Misssouri's current governor has never granted a death row inmate clemency, and the U.S. Supreme Court's conservative majority has yet to ever grant a stay for a Missouri execution either.

But Smith remains hopeful that Missouri will change. The center of that hope lies in a story she heard about why executions are held at the Bonne Terre prison, and not at Potosi, where Missouri's death row is.

Executions are carried out by a volunteer force of corrections officers, Smith says, but the Potosi prison got to a point where they couldn't get enough volunteers. Missouri's death row is "general population," meaning inmates are not confined to a cell. Through their years of incarceration, the corrections officers got to know the men.

"They say 'good morning' every day, have small talk, et cetera," Smith says. "They got to know them to the point where they wouldn't volunteer for the execution team."

That story alone gives Smith hope that Missouri will abolish the death penalty.

"I really feel like humanity will win out," she says. 

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