Michael Juan Smith pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges of being a convicted felon in possession of guns and ammunition.
Smith, 20, who already faces various state charges in connection with the Oct. 13 shooting of University of South Carolina freshman Martha Childress, now faces up to 10 years in prison on the federal gun charge.
His plea, at the Matthew Perry federal courthouse in Columbia before Magistrate Judge Joseph McCrorey, represented the first step in getting him to trial in the federal court system.
At the hearing, Smith was wearing a navy blue jail jumpsuit from Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, where the state charges against him include assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
“We’re disappointed that this hardened criminal showed absolutely no signs of remorse,” said Ron Johnson, Childress’ stepfather, who was in court to watch the proceeding.
In South Carolina, authorities often use stiff federal gun laws to prosecute convicted felons who carry guns to make sure those felons get a prison sentence.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said later Tuesday he was glad to bring federal charges against Smith and expose him to an all-but-certain lengthy prison sentence.
In Smith’s case, it is a matter of public record that Smith had previously been convicted and served time for a violent crime – burglary. And Oct. 13, when Childress was shot, a Columbia police officer arrested Smith within seconds with the gun allegedly used to shoot Childress still on him, according to a Columbia police report. Police also have video evidence.
Childress, 18, an innocent bystander waiting with a friend to catch a taxi back to the USC main campus, was hit by a stray bullet police said was fired by Smith during an argument with some acquaintances about 30 yards away, police said.
Her spine was severed, and she will never walk again, her family says. She is currently undergoing intensive rehabilitation in Atlanta.
Johnson said after Tuesday’s hearing he is glad federal prosecutors are bringing charges.
“The federal system, I have come to find out, moves much faster,” said Johnson, standing outside the federal courthouse.
Johnson said Childress is doing “remarkably well” at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The center is noted for its advanced treatment and rehabilitation of severe spinal cord injuries.
Every Tuesday afternoon, she Skypes with a USC class, University 101, back in Columbia, Johnson said.
USC president Harris Pastides was instrumental in arranging the Skype sessions, Johnson said.
According to a federal indictment in the case, Smith – who goes by the nicknames “Flame” and “Junior” – had a .40-caliber Glock pistol and .40-caliber ammunition. Columbia interim police chief Ruben Santiago has said the Glock was stolen from somewhere in Richland County, but he gave no other details.
Smith has prior convictions for second-degree burglary and grand larceny. One of those burglary convictions was classified as a violent crime.
He was on probation at the time of the shooting.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.