Keith Smith took pains to cover up his crime. He rehearsed his story and played the part of a grief-stricken widower to news reporters and homicide detectives.
In the end, a cellphone gave him away.
A Baltimore jury found Keith Tyrone Smith guilty Thursday of first-degree murder for stabbing his wife, Jacquelyn, to death and blaming two knife-wielding panhandlers they supposedly encountered on a desolate East Baltimore street corner. Jacquelyn was an electrical engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground. She was 54 when she died.
The jury heard evidence that cellphone signals placed the Smiths’ car in the heart of Druid Hill Park, not at the street corner, when Jacquelyn was stabbed.
That evidence contradicted the tearful story Keith Smith, of Aberdeen, told over and over.
“You had an individual who developed and created an elaborate cover up, a cowardly act to blame panhandlers in the city,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said outside the courthouse Thursday.
Jurors deliberated about five hours over two days before convicting Smith of first-degree murder and a weapons charge. The 55-year-old truck driver showed no emotion as the verdict was read.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Jennifer Schiffer is to sentence him Feb. 28. Prosecutors said they will ask for the maximum penalty: life in prison.
In convicting Smith of first-degree murder, the jury found he not only killed his wife but acted with premeditation. His defense attorney, Natalie Finegar, declined to comment on the verdict.
Outside the courthouse, Mosby spoke of the case alongside Shaundria Hanna, who prosecuted the case, and Jacquelyn Smith’s family.
“[Keith Smith] manipulated the hearts and minds of our country,” Mosby said.
With his tale of killer panhandlers, Smith exploited Baltimore’s reputation for street violence. The murder of his wife — three weeks before Christmas 2018, no less — provoked national outrage and stoked fear of the homeless.
“This story struck my heart. I’ve done this a 1k times. But will think twice before ever doing again. To J.S. family I hope her death gets people ‘woke’ to change!” Oprah Winfrey tweeted to millions of people.
Advocates for Baltimore’s homeless worried the crime would frighten drivers from giving — or worse, provoke confrontations.
Keith Smith told police he was driving his wife and adult daughter, Valeria, home after celebrating Valeria’s birthday at an American Legion hall. Jacquelyn passed $10 out the window to a couple panhandling with a baby, he told police, but they snatched Jacquelyn’s necklace, stole the wallet from her lap and stabbed her. He drove his wife to the hospital where she died.
Smith took steps to back up the story. He and Valeria — she pleaded guilty last year to acting as his accessory and testified against him — ditched Jacquelyn’s wallet. With his wife fatally wounded, Keith Smith placed a distraught phone call to 911. He drove his wife to the hospital, but they arrived too late for doctors to save her.
In the days afterward, the father and daughter gave wrenching interviews. He broke down crying before homicide detectives. Keith Smith urged officials to outlaw panhandling in the streets of Baltimore so no one else fell victim.
Detectives testified that they became suspicious after hearing inconsistencies in his story. First, he told them the attack happened too fast; he was in shock and didn’t see the knife. In a later interview, he described the weapon as a kitchen knife. He told police the woman panhandler wore a brown coat; later, a blue coat.
Why would a couple panhandle for money on a empty corner in the middle of the night, investigators wondered.
“Panhandlers typically panhandle in well-traveled and heavily populated areas during times of the day that would be most lucrative,” Baltimore Police Det. Michael Moran wrote in charging documents.
Police could find no evidence of the attack at the street corner: no blood on the ground, no discarded knife, not even the cardboard sign the panhandlers supposedly carried to ask for money to feed their baby. Crime scene technicians found no fingerprints of a suspect on the car. They found blood spattered inside the window where Jacquelyn sat, but Keith claimed she rolled down her window to hand the money.
Detectives searched homeless shelters but found no one matching the description of two panhandlers with a baby.
“Think about that. A panhandler just randomly stabs her five times?” Hanna, the prosecutor, asked jurors in closing arguments.
Investigators tried to corroborate his story. According to trial testimony, they checked as many as 30 surveillance cameras around the area of the supposed attack, but found no sight of the Smiths’ car or the panhandlers. FBI Agent Matthew Wilde testified that he ran a report on the cellphones of Keith, Valeria and Jacquelyn Smith.
Keith Smith’s phone made or received no calls or texts message around the time of the murder. That could be explained if the phone was turned off or out of service.
Valeria’s phone, however, pinged off a cellphone tower to place them in Druid Hill Park. When detectives asked Keith Smith about this, he said he became lost while driving home. He made no mention of a detour in the park before. After this interview, he moved from Baltimore to Winter Haven, Florida.
Growing more suspicious, detectives obtained a court order to wiretap his phone. They noticed he was communicating with his daughter through a cellphone video app; they couldn’t tap in. They intercepted mail Smith sent her; the package held a new cellphone.
Three months after the murder, the father and daughter rented a car and drove for Mexico. Texas troopers arrested them 20 miles before the border.
Valeria Smith became the prosecutor’s key witness, testifying Tuesday against her father. She told the jury he drove them into the park with Jacquelyn dozing in the front passenger seat and he stabbed her.
“He waited until she was defenseless to take her life,” said Hanna, the prosecutor.
Afterward, Keith Smith coached his daughter on what they would tell police.
“The story was supposed to be it was a homeless person, or two homeless people, that had a baby, and Mrs. Jacquelyn was supposed to feel sorry for them,” Valeria Smith told the jury. “When she gave them the money, they stabbed her.”
Keith Smith declined to testify in his trial. His attorney did not present a defense case. Finegar, his attorney, told the jury that inconsistencies in Keith Smith’s story don’t prove he killed his wife. Police never found the murder weapon. She told jurors they can’t trust Valeria Smith.
The daughter struck a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to acting as an accessory after her stepmother’s murder and to testify against her father in exchange for five years in prison. Her crime usually brings a maximum 10 years.
She’s scheduled to be sentenced Monday and could be released on parole.
As an alternate juror, Clifton Spencer listened to all the evidence and arguments but was dismissed before deliberations. He said he would have been persuaded to find Smith guilty based on the unexplained detour in Druid Hill Park and phone calls Smith placed to travel agents.
Prosecutors played the calls during trial. Smith tried first to book a one-way flight to Cuba.
“Oh, I didn’t know you need a passport ... Do you need a passport to get into Canada?”
“Oh, I didn’t know that ... Do you need a passport to get to the Virgin Islands?”