South Carolina jury convicts inmate in first trial involving deadly prison riots

Dec 9, 2023, 11:27 AM

BISHOPVILLE, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina jurors have found an inmate guilty of charges connected to the death of a fellow inmate during the deadliest U.S. prison riot of the past quarter-century.

The Lee County jury deliberated less than an hour on Friday before finding Michael Juan “Flame” Smith guilty of assault and battery by mob, weapon possession and conspiracy for his role in the 2018 violence. Trial Judge Ferrell Cothran Jr. gave Smith a 45-year sentence, although one five-year term issued will run concurrently with the other time, news outlets reported.

Seven prisoners were killed and 22 seriously injured in the riot at the maximum-security Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Columbia. One inmate described bodies “literally stacked on top of each other, like some macabre woodpile.”

Dozens of inmates have been indicted on charges related to the riots that occurred across three dormitories, and a string of defendants began pleading guilty over the summer. But Smith was the first prisoner whose case went to trial, according to the news outlets. Within four days he was convicted of the charges related to the death of 33-year-old Cornelius McClary.

“This sends a message that the people of Lee County and Department of Corrections aren’t going to put up with this kind of activity,” said Barney Giese, a former prosecutor retained by the Corrections Department to help prosecute the riot cases.

In the trial testimony that focused largely on one dormitory, witnesses painted a picture of chaos inside the prison and injured and dead inmates that stemmed from a brawl between rival gangs on April 15, 2018.

Jurors watched video clips that showed the assault of McClary. Prosecutors said Smith was among Blood gang members that chased McClary, who was trying to get away. A pathologist who was a prosecution witness testified that McClary had been stabbed 101 times. Giese said the videos showed Smith pushing through a crowd of fellow Bloods to follow McClary, a Crips gang member who had fallen down a staircase, and stab and hit him.

Another prosecutor, Margaret Scott, said it was a case of “the hunter and the hunted … predator and prey,” and that McClary was the prey.

Smith, 31, who took the stand Thursday, told the jury he stabbed McClary to death in self-defense. His defense attorney, Aimee Zmroczek, emphasized to jurors Smith’s testimony that he had been in fear of his life during the hourslong riot, and that a friend of his had been stabbed to death earlier that night in another dormitory.

Zmroczek also criticized the state Department of Corrections for failing to keep inmates in a safe and secure environment. Corrections officials have blamed the orchestrated violence in part on illegal cellphones behind bars.

Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling said after Friday’s verdict that inmate safety has improved at Lee Correctional Institution and more upgrades are coming. When the riot occurred, all 1,000 inmates at the prison were classified as maximum security, but now only 30% have that status, he said, with the remainder as medium security.

Smith was imprisoned at the time of the riot after being convicted of attempted murder in the shooting of a University of South Carolina student. That convicted was overturned by the state Supreme Court three years ago. He’s been held since then at a Columbia detention center.

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South Carolina jury convicts inmate in first trial involving deadly prison riots