Va. judge dismisses charge against Smith Lack of evidence is basis of ruling for ex-Terp star

September 17, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- A felony charge of malicious wounding was dismissed last night against former University of Maryland basketball star Joe Smith after a 7 1/2 -hour preliminary hearing at General District Court.

After a parade of defense witnesses said that they didn't see the 21-year-old Smith hit Carlton Coney with a bottle during a brawl at a local club July 26, Judge S. Bernard Goodwyn ruled there was insufficient evidence to send the case to the grand jury.

Smith, who sat stoically throughout the often tedious proceedings, broke down as he heard the judge's decision. More than a dozen family members and friends cheered, then cried as Smith's mother, Letha, fell sobbing into the arms of one of her six children.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of between five and 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. The decision ended what had been a nearly two-month ordeal for Smith.

"I'm just relieved," Smith said. "I thank God. The judge came with an open mind and listened to both sides of the case.

"I didn't know what to expect. I'm not used to procedures like this. All I know is what I didn't do."

Said Letha Smith, "The biggest burden has been taken off the whole family. Justice has prevailed. Words cannot describe what this has done to our lives."

After the start of Smith's hearing was pushed back from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Goodwyn listened to the testimony of Coney, a 25-year-old exotic dancer, and two other dancers who were working at Ridley's, a local bar, on the night of the alleged incident.

Dancer David Turner said that he was told Smith had thrown an ashtray at him during his routine. Turner said that the brawl began after he confronted Smith, who Turner said cursed at him the first time.

However, Turner said that Smith backed away after each confrontation.

Defense attorneys Pat O'Donnell and Joseph Lyle proceeded to challenge the testimony of Coney and Turner.

"They were two interested parties in the outcome of this case," O'Donnell said.

Conversely, O'Donnell contended that the nine people who testified on Smith's behalf did not have a stake in the case. Only two of them, club manager Marc Ridley and Lisa Foster, had even met Smith, however briefly, prior to the night of the brawl.

Another witness, emergency medical technician Beate Harrington, said that Coney's breath smelled from alcohol and that the dancer admitted to having "too much" to drink.

Two security guards working at the club that night said that Smith had nothing to do with the brawl. One of them, William Knight, said that he escorted Smith away from a verbal confrontation with Turner prior to Coney's being hit.

Though deputy Commonwealth Attorney Nancy Parr tried to raise inconsistencies in the stories from the six defense witnesses who witnessed the brawl, the judge found they all arrived independently at the same conclusion: that there wasn't probable cause to show that Smith was involved in any altercation.

"We're just very thankful today," said O'Donnell.

Said Parr, "I respect the judge's decision. At this time, we don't know whether we're going to put the evidence in front of a grand jury."

With the chances remote of the grand jury ignoring the judge's decision and returning an indictment against Smith, the 6-foot-10 forward now can proceed with his second NBA season as a member of the Golden State Warriors.

Smith will leave for training camp in a couple of weeks and return here for an exhibition game in nearby Hampton next month.

"When I came out early [from Maryland after his sophomore year], I knew something like this could happen," he said, trying to hold back tears. "I just didn't think it would happen to me."

Asked if he would learn from this experience, Smith broke down again.

"You have to think about it," he said. "It can happen to anyone at any time. All I want to do is to play basketball."

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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