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In a Baltimore courtroom, mercy for an inmate with ‘terminal and incurable’ cancer | COMMENTARY

Convicted in a 1982 murder, Robert T. Smith spent years in the Maryland State Penitentiary and finished serving nearly 40 years at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown.
Convicted in a 1982 murder, Robert T. Smith spent years in the Maryland State Penitentiary and finished serving nearly 40 years at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Two correctional officers brought Robert Thomas Smith into Baltimore Circuit Judge Audrey J.S. Carrión’s courtroom on Monday morning, and that marked a first for me — a terminal cancer patient in handcuffs and chains.

Smith, a slight man with a beard, wore prison-issue denim and a black kufi cap. He scanned the courtroom through glasses with dark rims. Smith was ambulatory, meaning he could walk. While the chains around his waist seemed grotesquely inappropriate, I suppose there was a chance a 64-year-old man with end-stage liver cancer could still get away from armed correctional officers and courthouse deputies.

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I had seen it many times before, of course — inmates brought from prison or jail in chains for the escorting officers’ safety and the public’s. And I suppose I should not question such a policy in this circumstance because, all things considered, Robert Smith is lucky to have had the court date.

Ten months ago, a doctor with the University of Maryland Medical Center concluded that the cancer in Smith’s body had advanced to stage 4, “terminal and incurable.”

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You’d think that would qualify an inmate for merciful medical release — especially one who had served nearly 40 years in prison for a crime he committed at the age of 25.

But Smith had been denied release by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge and, more recently, the Maryland Parole Commission.

Distressed at this, his advocates took a different approach with a second Baltimore judge. That’s how the case ended up in Carrion’s courtroom.

Informed earlier this month of Smith’s condition, the judge granted a hearing on a simple request — that his life sentence be reduced to the time he had served so that he might be released.

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“Mr. Smith is a proud man,” his attorney, Nancy Forster, told the judge. “It’s not like me to say this, but, when we spoke on the phone, we were crying together, and he said, ‘Please don’t let me die in here.’”

Forster, the former Maryland public defender, has been Smith’s attorney for eight years. She believes Smith was wrongly convicted of a drug-related homicide in 1982. “But that is neither here nor there,” Forster said, imploring the judge to allow Smith to spend his final months with his wife and son.

His wife, Annette Cohn, and son, Robert D. Smith, sat together on a wooden bench in the rear of the courtroom.

The state, represented by Becky Feldman, an assistant state’s attorney, joined in the motion for a modification of Smith’s sentence. A state social worker, Robin Fultz, created an excellent plan for Smith’s release, Feldman said, with a place to live, a bank account, arrangements for medical care, health insurance and disability benefits.

Forster asked Smith if he wanted to speak. He did so, still in chains, from the trial table. In a voice barely audible, he looked at Carrion and said, “Please let me go home to be with my family with the time I have left.”

Carrion readily granted the request, and arrangements were made for Smith’s release Monday evening.

Outside the courtroom, his son spoke quietly about his relationship with his father.

Robert D. Smith, who is 44, has many memories of visiting his father in prison. But what about before that?

He went back to 1982, when he would have been just 5 years old. His father took him to downtown Baltimore to see the latest “Rocky” movie. Afterward, they encountered a street artist near the Inner Harbor. The father paid the artist to paint a picture of his little boy as he envisioned him — as a champion like Rocky.

Everything changed after that.

Baltimore police arrested Robert T. Smith in the homicide of a drug dealer named Alfred Williams. Smith was convicted of the murder and sent to prison for life. Over the years, he continued to claim his innocence and appealed his conviction every way possible.

His son grew up poor in Baltimore, raised by his mother. The father the boy had only briefly known became the father he visited on Wednesdays at the old Maryland Penitentiary. “My mother took me to see him until I was 18, and then I went as often as I could after that,” Robert D. Smith said. “During prison visits, he told me that I was going to be different from a lot of kids, but I didn’t know what he meant by that.”

Maybe it was just a prideful father speaking encouragement as best he could from inside a prison. Or maybe it was the report cards he saw showing his son earning consistently high grades. Maybe the more Robert T. Smith saw of those, the more he believed life would turn out better for Robert D. Smith.

“He was ecstatic about my grades,” the son recalled. “He carried my report card around the prison.”

In talks on visiting days, the father managed to make an impression. “He was always relevant without being present,” Robert D. Smith told me. “He said never lie and always be truthful … and you’ll be a standup guy.”

Though he had troubles of his own as a teenager and young adult, Robert D. Smith graduated from Frederick Douglass High School with an overall grade of 98.4. He went to Bowie State University and graduated with a degree in sociology. He works as a behavioral specialist in a Baltimore public school, has a daughter and two sons — one of them also named Robert — and now, after 40 years, and for the time that remains, he’ll have the company of his father as a free man.

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