February 19, 2014

Man accused of shooting, paralyzing USC freshman pleads guilty to federal gun charge

The sentencing of Michael “Flame” Juan Smith, a high school dropout and twice-convicted burglar, will be delayed until at least June, pending completion of a pre-sentencing report.

The 21-year-old Columbia man accused of shooting and paralyzing a USC freshman in Five Points last fall pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal gun charge that could land him in prison for 10 years.

The sentencing of Michael “Flame” Juan Smith, a high school dropout and twice-convicted burglar, will be delayed until at least June, pending completion of a pre-sentencing report.

Smith pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a weapon. He did not admit to firing a weapon in connection with last Oct. 13’s shooting of Martha Childress, 18.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson said later Wednesday that five state gun and deadly assault charges involving the shooting, including attempted murder, are still pending against Smith.

“We’re still moving forward,” Johnson said. No date has yet been set for a trial.

If found guilty on all the state charges, Smith – who police say used a stolen Glock pistol to shoot Childress – could get a total of 46 years in prison, according to Johnson’s office.

After the hearing, Childress’ family said the freshman continues to recover, is in good spirits and plans to speak at Smith’s sentencing hearing in federal court.

“She is moving on,” said her uncle, Jim Carpenter.

At Wednesday’s hearing, assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Haynes detailed the evidence that police have against Smith – the totality of which induced him to plead guilty without preconditions.

Smith got in an altercation with others at Five Points, drew his gun and fired, Haynes said. The bullet went wild and hit Childress, a bystander who was about 30 yards away, severing her spine and causing her to drop to the ground, Columbia police have said.

Although the hour was late, it was a State Fair weekend, and Columbia’s popular bar and nightclub district that adjoins the USC campus was still full of people, Haynes said.

Haynes said police evidence includes:

• Video that captured Smith, with a gun, and his girlfriend about 2:30 a.m. walking around Five Points on Oct. 13

His being nabbed by police seconds after firing the gun

• A test for gunshot residue on his hands that showed he had just fired a gun
• The fact that the gun was still on him.

Other evidence includes a “spontaneous statement” by Smith on being grabbed by police that, “I didn’t mean to shoot.” Also, markings on a shell casing found on the scene were consistent with being fired from the .40 caliber Glock handgun confiscated from Smith, Haynes said.

The specific federal charge to which Smith pleaded guilty Wednesday is being a felon in possession of ammunition and a handgun.

Local S.C. police and prosecutors often coordinate with federal prosecutors to bring gun charges against convicted felons who, having been let out of prison, persist in using guns in crimes. Federal gun laws are more strict than state laws, and prosecution is swifter.

Any prison sentence eventually given to Smith on the five pending state charges might be served consecutively, or simultaneously, with his future federal prison sentence, Johnson said.

“What happens in federal court doesn’t affect what we do in state court,” Johnson said. “They (the five state charges) are separate and distinct charges.”

The state charges are attempted murder, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, illegal possession of a firearm, possession of a weapon during a violent crime and unlawful carrying of a pistol.

Federal Judge Joseph Anderson on Wednesday took Smith’s plea in his windowless courtroom at the Matthew Perry federal courthouse.

Smith’s lawyer, federal assistant public defender Jimmie Rogers, stressed to Anderson that Smith was only pleading guilty to being a convicted felon in possession of a gun.

“He is making no comment on any of the other charges,” Rogers said.

At the time of the shooting, Smith was on probation. He has prior convictions for second-degree burglary and grand larceny. By federal law, the burglary convictions make him eligible for prosecution under the stiff federal gun law.

The gun Smith used had been stolen from a Richland County residence, Haynes said at the hearing.

South Carolina has no state law requiring gun owners to keep weapons secure, so the gun owner can’t be prosecuted for allowing his gun to fall into the hands of a criminal who used it to harm someone.

“We do these cases every day in federal court,” Haynes, who specializes in federal gun prosecutions, said after the hearing.

“Felons who continue to arm themselves time and time again after receiving their sentences in state courts are being prosecuted on the federal level,” she said.

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