Lakeesha Smith was sentenced Wednesday to nine years in prison without probation for the hit-and-run death of Tundun Lawani ‘14.
The sentence was handed down by Knox County Judge Scott Shiplett during an emotionally-charged sentencing hearing during which Shiplett adopted the recommendation from prosecutors. The nine-year sentence includes three years for reckless homicide and six years for leaving the scene of an accident involving a death.
The sentence was more severe than the six-year minimum for the two charges, but it is well below the maximum of 20 years. The nine-year recommendation was part of a plea deal struck by Assistant State’s Attorney Elisa Tanner and Smith defense lawyer Eric Bell in August, when Smith pleaded guilty in exchange for dropping several charges against her, including aggravated DUI.
Shiplett noted that he was not bound by that recommendation in deciding Smith’s sentence but he believes the court should not exceed that amount … except for cases with “exceptional circumstances.”
“Miss Smith’s record, the facts of this case and the factors of aggravation all call out for a more severe sentence than the minimum of six,” Shiplett said. “However, in this case, I believe that the state’s proffered recommendation is not so extraordinary that it’s too much or too little. … It is a fair recommendation.”
There will be no possibility of probation, and the sentence will be followed by three years of mandatory parole.
Smith’s criminal history was a major aggravating factor in the judge’s decision, taking into account that she was on probation for a 2011 felony retail theft conviction at the time of the hit-and-run accident in October 2012.
Moreover, Shiplett noted that in convictions dating back to the early 2000s, Smith was mandated to get drug and alcohol treatment or was not supposed to be found in possession of alcohol.
“Even 10, 11 years ago, you knew that alcohol was a problem,” Shiplett said. “The state did. The government did. The courts did. But you apparently did not take that to heart.”
Shiplett also considered Smith’s feeling of remorse, as she made an emotional and apologetic statement during the hearing. But for Shiplett, the act of leaving the scene of the accident was more telling.
“Miss Smith is clearly remorseful sitting here today, but by fleeing the scene, I think that demonstrates that she was clearly more concerned with her own welfare, fear of the consequences of her conduct, than she was of any consequences for Miss Lawani should she leave the scene.”
In addition to numerous written statements submitted to the court on Smith’s behalf and her attorney’s statement, both Smith’s father and one of her sisters provided character witness testimony during the hearing. They largely detailed Smith’s troubled past but also her involvement in their family.
“Taking away two lives isn’t going to help,” said Larry Kemp, Smith’s father.
“She is not a menace to society as she is being portrayed,” said sister Amy Smith, who recalled how Lakeesha supported her at a young age.
But the prosecution strayed from any discussion of the incident as circumstantial or accidental.
“The defendant’s sister asked why this had to happen,” Tanner said. “I’m not trying to be cold or callous, but this happened because of the defendant. This happened because she drank, got in the car, drove and hit somebody.”
“After that, she left. She didn’t show the compassion we’re hearing about, or any of those things her family would have us believe,” Tanner said.
The court also heard victim impact statements written by Lawani’s mother and sister and read aloud by a victims’ advocate. The statement from Lawani’s mother, who was widowed when Tundun was young, detailed her deep depression following her daughter’s death.
“Just when I thought the worst was over for me at 50 years of age, the music stopped, the tears began to flow and have not stopped since then,” she said. “All my expectations and hope for a bright and promising future for my beloved daughter has been dashed.”