It is a story to fascinate anyone who has ever felt a sense of grievance. After 13 years of complaining about a crippling pain that Maryland prison officials, doctors, guards, psychologists, his own lawyer and even his own psychiatrist all concluded was in his mind, a convicted armed robber named William Lewis Smith has finally won the attention of a group of people who sat down and listened to his legal problems:
The U.S. Supreme Court.
The justices have promised a response. The result could be that the high court will relax its rules this year so that non-lawyer litigants like Smith have an easier time lodging their complaints with the legal system. If the court does that, it will affect prison inmates across the nation who have some claim to press in the federal courts but no access to a lawyer.
"This case will decide law, one way or another," said Steven H. Goldblatt, director of the Georgetown Appellate Litigation Program, which is representing Smith. "And it's not just for prisoners. There are a lot of people out there who can't afford counsel."
Thousands of prison inmates attempt to file complaints in the federal system every year. Some 800 filed last year in Maryland alone, according to the U.S. District Court clerk's office in Baltimore. But more than half are rejected outright. Few ever get as far as Smith.
He is the first Maryland inmate in more than 10 years to win a hearing before the Supreme Court, the Maryland attorney general's office said. And he did it through a combination of accident and obsession.
The initial accident occurred in 1978, when Smith, a Baltimore resident newly arrived at the Prince George's County Detention Center after his third arrest on armed robbery charges, slipped and fell against a bedpost, injuring his back.
The injury became the central obsession of his life. He has been gripped ever since by a pattern of pain and numbness that he says has left him paralyzed and in need of treatment. But it is a condition for which the prison doctors said they could find no physical explanation.
Their explanation was that Smith was crazy.
"This is basically a neurotic, anti-social psychopath who gives himself a high amount of the benefit of the doubt. . . . All the tests point out hysterical personality and this writer is feeling fairly certain that the present symptomatology is basically a hysterical conversion," Daniel Porecki, a correctional psychologist, wrote in a letter to the assistant warden at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore 10 years ago.
But Smith has persisted. He has now been complaining about his pain and lack of treatment for 13 years. He has used a wheelchair for more than 10 years. He won a jury trial in federal court against two prison psychologists eight years ago. His legs look withered from disuse.
He is quiet, intense, totally absorbed in his cause. "If I remain like this," Smith said, seated in his wheelchair, a pile of legal documents in his lap, "I may die in here, just because of a lack of treatment. That scares me."
Suspicion of faking
Yet the prison hierarchy still harbors the suspicion that he is faking.
"There is some question about how much of an invalid he is," Jon Galley, warden of the Roxbury Correctional Institution, where Smith is held now, said enigmatically. "He has been observed playing pool." He would not say more, and the medical director for the prison, Dr. Donald Swetter, who is in charge of his care, refused to be interviewed about Smith's condition.
Leo Hylan, the Baltimore attorney appointed to represent Smith in his suit against the prison system in U.S. District Court, has his own way of describing his former client and his grievance. "He is a man who is preoccupied, but he is also a man who suffers terribly," Mr. Hylan said. "Mr. Smith is telling the truth when he complains about the paralysis, if you define the truth as whether or not he really believes it. He does believe it."
The prison system apparently never did. Smith was moved to the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore in 1978, and for several years, first from a hospital bed and then from a cell in the general population, the inmate and the prison authorities engaged in a struggle over whether his pain and paralysis were imaginary or real. It was not an equal fight, and the wheelchair became its symbol -- and a pawn in the struggle for control.
Smith said he could not get around without the wheelchair and was often forced to stay in his cell, unable to see his family when they came to visit, keep medical appointments with doctors and even to simply take a shower.
"Inmates used to put me on a filthy garbage cart they would put garbage cans on," Smith said. "They would set me on this and push me down to the shower. I had caught crabs, and my skin was broke up bad."