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Capital murder plea set
In Don Lawson's death
Kenneth Brian Smith is shown at his preliminary hearing in November. He pleaded guilty to capital murder in the case Friday.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
Kenneth Brian Smith will spend the rest of his life in prison after he pleaded guilty Friday to killing his former stepfather, Donald Lawson of Martinsville.
Martinsville Circuit Court Judge G. Carter Greer handed down a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after Smith, 42, pleaded guilty to capital murder and several other charges.
Smith admitted to killing his stepfather, Lawson, 58, of 806 Parkview Ave., Martinsville, in an attempt to get money so he and his girlfriend, Amanda Gail Alexander, 25, could leave Martinsville, according to a summary of evidence presented in court.
Capital murder is punishable by the death sentence or life in prison.
Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Joan Ziglar said Saturday that Smith and his attorneys came to her with the proposal — already signed — that Smith plead guilty to capital murder and be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and other charges. That way, she said, he avoided the death penalty.
The agreement also states that Smith will not seek a pardon if that possibility ever arises, Ziglar said.
Judge Greer accepted the plea agreement “probably with mixed feelings like I did,” Ziglar said, adding that she would have liked to have seen the case go to trial. However, “the family and I felt it was the right thing to do,” she said.
She said she could not elaborate “for reasons I can’t discuss.”
In court Friday, Greer said Lawson’s death was a “horrible act of violence. That’s the only way to describe the crime.”
The sentences meant that Smith “will never see the light of day again, and that is a fitting punishment,” Greer said.
Lawson ran a business in the Villa Heights area and was active in the Republican Party locally.
In summarizing the evidence in the case, Ziglar said Lawson’s health was poor and he had difficulty walking, so he often slept in a chair. That was where he was when he was attacked.
Lawson helped raise Smith, and kept in contact with him throughout his life, Ziglar said.
She alleged that Smith and Alexander hatched a plan against Lawson and his property in an effort to get money because “they wanted to get out of the Martinsville area.”
When conspiring to kill Lawson days before, Ziglar said that Smith told Alexander that “Dad (Lawson) had a lot of money” and likely kept it in his home.
Shortly before the slaying, Smith said that he would “have to go in hard,” Ziglar said. During the late hours of May 23, 2011, he went to Lawson’s home and waited by a staircase near the back of the home for Lawson to sit in his chair, she said.
Ziglar said Smith made several trips up and down the staircase to see if Lawson was seated.
Smith, armed with a piece of wood and a hatchet, broke into the home through sliding glass doors after Lawson sat in the chair, Ziglar said. Smith cut himself on a piece of broken glass.
Waiting outside, Alexander told authorities that she allegedly heard Lawson yelling “Please don’t hit me anymore” as he was bludgeoned to death with the hatchet, Ziglar said.
Many of Lawson’s friends and family gathered in the gallery sobbed as Ziglar noted that Lawson was hit on his head and body.
The strikes were so vicious “that a portion of his brain actually seeped through his skull,” she said.
Alexander allegedly stayed outside of Lawson’s home until the noise stopped, Ziglar said. Smith then let her into the home and she used the bathroom, Ziglar said.
Lawson’s home then was ransacked, with several items stolen, including a gun, TV, an unspecified amount of cash and electronic devices, Ziglar said. She added that the items were loaded into Lawson’s van and driven to the Pittsylvania/Henry county line.
There, several items were disposed of, including Lawson’s wallet and keys, Ziglar said. The .357 magnum taken from Lawson’s home and some other items were pawned for $520, she said.
Authorities tracked Alexander’s cell phone to an area in Henrico County outside Richmond, Ziglar said. Martinsville police investigators contacted authorities there and asked them to watch the van, and if it tried to leave, take the suspects in custody.
Henrico County authorities put the couple in custody after the two got in the van to go to a convenience store, Ziglar said. Martinsville Police officers drove there to return them to Martinsville.
Smith, Ziglar said, declined to speak. She alleged that Alexander made a full confession.
Police also recovered the murder weapon; a mask, which Ziglar described as a T-shirt that had been tied over Smith’s head; a pair of Lawson’s underwear; and other items, she said.
Smith’s DNA was found on the murder weapon and other items, she added.
Lawson’s close friends and family members signed off on the plea agreement, Ziglar said.
Greer said Smith’s criminal history showed six other felony convictions.
Smith testified in court that he is on probation/parole. He did not elaborate.
Ziglar said Saturday that Smith was on probation on arson and other charges in Chesapeake when Lawson was killed. Smith acknowledged to Judge Greer on Friday that his plea in the Lawson case could result in an addition charge in Chesapeake.
“I’m truly and soulfully sorry for what has happened,” Smith said shortly before Greer handed down the sentence. “I will forever remain ... I’m just sorry,” he said, as his voice broke.
A woman seated on the other side of the gallery and identified as Smith’s mother burst into tears and continued sobbing for a few minutes.
Greer also accepted Smith’s guilty pleas under the agreement to grand larceny, conspiracy to commit murder, statutory burglary while armed with a deadly weapon and robbery.
Smith was sentenced to 20 years each on the conspiracy and grand larceny charges; life terms on both the statutory burglary and robbery charges; and life without the possibility of parole on the charge of capital murder, with the sentences to run consecutively.
Greer commended Ziglar, her office and Martinsville Police Officers, as well as Smith’s defense team of Tom Blaylock and David Furrow, for “a job well done.”
Alexander, of Martinsville, also is charged with capital murder, grand larceny, conspiracy, robbery and statutory burglary in connection with Lawson’s death.
Her trial is set to start Oct. 9, Ziglar said.