The justice system gave Cornell Smith a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. And now he stands accused of murdering an innocent Northeastern student in a case of mistaken identity.
A Suffolk County grand jury indicted Smith on Friday on charges he murdered Rebecca Payne in her Parker Hill Avenue apartment in 2008 by shooting her in the knees and the chest. The Suffolk County District Attorney's office says Payne, a New Milford, CT resident who had a job at Legal Seafood, did not know Smith. Channel 7 reports police think Smith got Payne confused with another resident of the building, who looked like her - but who had some sort of gang affiliation.
The DA's office says it doesn't yet know when Smith, who lived on Hammond Street near the Northeastern campus, will be arraigned on the murder charge - in part because that will involve scheduling a flight from Wisconsin, where he's currently serving a 12 1/2 year federal sentence for cocaine trafficking for an arrest made on Stoughton Street in Dorchester three months after Payne's murder.
That sentence runs concurrently with a 12-to-15-year state sentence for a drug conviction stemming from an incident on Feb. 16, 2008.
Court records show Smith was on bail for the Feb. 16 incident when Payne's building superintendent found her body early on May 20 - several hours after nearby residents failed to call police after hearing several gunshots.
In August, three months after Payne's death, a Boston police officer watched Smith sell cocaine to somebody outside 49 Stoughton St. in Dorchester, which led to the federal drug-trafficking charge.
In 2009, he pleaded guilty to that charge in US District Court in Boston - not long after he was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in Suffolk Superior Court for the February arrest. US District Court Judge William Young then sentenced him to 12 1/2 years - as a career criminal - for the August arrest.
At his federal sentencing, assistant US Attorney Natasha Tidwell laid out Smith's criminal history:
Just from beginning at the age of 17, if not before, on his first drug offense he was sentenced to a term of two and-a-half years. He served nine months. The remainder was suspended. Shortly after his release he violated his probation, another drug offense. Served out the remainder of that term, sentenced again for a drug offense at the age of 19. In March 2004, at the age of 22, he received a sentence of three years and a day. Gets out for good conduct, comes out, reoffends in February 2008, which is the state offense for which he has just been sentenced to a term of 12 to 15 years. While he's out on bail for that offense he offends in this case.
In a memo to Young, Smith's lawyer, Paul Garrity, asked for leniency. He said Smith's life was just one bad break after another, starting with his birth to a single mother, and continuing with being surrounded by uncles and aunts with serious drug problems and drug records, a stepfather who routinely beat him, a drinking habit that began at age 8 and a coke habit he started at 13. As an adult, Garrity wrote, Smith was homeless when not incarcerated and had a long-term relationship with a woman who was herself a coke addict. Smith, Garrity wrote, sold drugs only to support his own habit:
[T]he defendant experienced a most difficult upbringing, which included significant physical abuse, and which set the stage for his own substance abuse from an early age and ultimately his engaging in criminal activity to support his dependence. The defendant had little chance to overcome the scars of this upbringing, and his efforts in substance abuse treatment have so far not been successful.
A second man, Billerica real-estate agent Michael Balba, 55, was charged with perjury for repeatedly lying to the grand jury investigating Payne's death, the DA's office says. He is scheduld for arraignment tomorrow.