The Prosecution Speaks: District Attorney Ricky Smith Jr. on youth gun crime

Published 4:00 am Saturday, July 24, 2021

This is the third story in a series from The Vicksburg Post investigating youth gun crimes in Vicksburg and Warren County. To read the second story in the series, click here.

When a violent crime involving a gun is committed in Warren, Sharkey or Issaquena Counties, the case lands on the desk of District Attorney Ricky Smith, Jr.

As district attorney, Smith said the role of his office is to keep the community safe from those who commit gun crimes — even juveniles. Over the last year, he said, his office has taken on more cases involving defendants who are teenagers.

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“It does appear that the majority of violent offenses now are done by individuals who are in their teens or early twenties,” Smith said. “Punishment is one of the big ways to get offenders off the street, but we also look at ways to alleviate the problem, too. To try to correct the problem before it occurs. Of course, usually by the time these things get to us, it’s too late for any rehabilitative measures.”

Smith said his office handled 15 homicide cases in 2020, many of which involved those in their late teens or early twenties. There have been only two homicides in Vicksburg this year, but in both cases, children stand accused of pulling the trigger.

‘Tell-tale signs’

Smith said he’s noticed some ‘tell-tale signs’ that a juvenile is becoming increasingly likely to commit a violent crime with a gun.

The Vicksburg Police Department routinely reports cases of guns stolen from vehicles, and stolen firearms are being carried on the streets. Smith commended one of the goals of Mayor George Flaggs Jr.: stopping the discharging of firearms within Vicksburg city limits. Doing this, he said, could help cut down on the number of juveniles in court for violent crimes.

“Something the mayor is trying to work against that’s an indicator of a possible future felony is discharging a weapon in the city,” Smith said. “Other than that, possession of a weapon by someone who is 15, 16, 17 is an indicator of possible future felonious activity. If you’ll possess one at that age, there’s a possibility that you’ll use one at that age.”

Personal emotional toll

According to Mississippi youth court jurisdictional statutes, if any individual over the age of 13 uses a deadly weapon in the commission of a crime, their case automatically falls under the jurisdiction of the circuit court.

While he’s a stickler for the rules, Smith said there are times when gun crimes involving juveniles are especially difficult to emotionally process. One example he provided was the bond hearing of Thomas Hardman, the 14-year-old charged with manslaughter-culpable negligence in the June 8 shooting death of his 11-year-old cousin, Rashawn Wilbert.

“I think everybody believes that prosecutors have very small hearts, but that’s not true. It does affect us,” he said. “We had a bond hearing on (one of the homicide cases) on Thursday. Especially in that case, it involves family members. It has an emotional toll on us to do that.

“We know that the 14-year-old has family also, that he’s just starting his life. But we also know that there’s an 11-year-old who will never have a life.”

The situational dilemma surrounding the accused party’s age is something Smith said makes his position difficult. However, he said, adult crimes warrant adult consequences.

“My position is, at that age, if you do an adult crime, you will have to face the consequences as an adult,” he said. “The decision on what punishment you get may have some bearing on your age and maturity level, but adult crimes mean you have to face the adult judicial system.”

Examining the issue

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Smith said he would routinely speak to at-risk youth about the consequences of violent crimes. One thing he noticed was the lack of foresight in many teenagers — something the district attorney directly correlates with increased gun crimes.

“We have an entire generation of kids, I think, that don’t think past what they’re going to do in the next hour. They can’t think, “What am I going to do five years from now?” You might as well be asking them, ‘What is the molecular number of Plutonium?'” he said. “I don’t know that they’ve stopped to think. …We have a large group of our population where that never crosses their minds. It’s ‘What do I want?’ and ‘How do I get it now?'”

This mentality, coupled with the continued ramifications of decreased socialization and community involvement for many of Warren County’s youth, leads children to seek positive reinforcement from negative sources, he said. As a result, gang leaders and hostile individuals hold more influence over youth at risk of committing gun crimes.

Once the shot is fired

When a violent crime is committed, and the case lands in the hands of the district attorney, the charges must be examined. For juveniles, it is rare that they will start out in circuit court tried as adults; more often, acts of delinquency are handled in youth court.

Minors end up in circuit court for a couple of reasons: they used a deadly weapon in a crime, or youth court resources have been exhausted. The sole aim of the youth court is rehabilitation, whereas circuit court tends to be more punitive. However, Smith said, offenders’ ages often come into play when prosecuting crimes committed by juveniles.

“We attempt, as best we can, to try to keep felony convictions of young offenders’ records,” Smith said.

There are a few methods used in Warren County to help offenders get their charges expunged: pre-trial intervention, drug court or a non-adjudicated plea, where an individual pleads guilty but the judge refuses to accept that plea and sentences the individual to a probation period instead.

“Good people make bad choices sometimes, and I understand that, as district attorney,” he said. “Sometimes, based on the emotional state of mind at the time or financial conditions, somebody just made a stupid decision and maybe that stupid decision shouldn’t follow them forever.”

Consequences and responsibility to victims

The goal of the prosecution is to make victims of violent crimes as whole as possible and to bring the guilty to justice. However, Smith said, it’s not always easy to accomplish.

“As prosecutors, we deal in the world of what we can prove, not what we believe,” he said. “Whatever I deal with, I need to know that I can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of 12 people if I have to go to trial. There’s a difference in arrests and convictions.”

One of the most difficult things his office deals with, he said, is cooperation from the community as far as witnesses are concerned.

Lack of cooperation from witnesses can make it difficult to prosecute those who commit violent crimes.

“I think there’s a significant part of the community that says, ‘You don’t cooperate with police, you don’t cooperate with prosecutors’ — even if you’re a victim of a crime,” he said. “What happens is, we get a lot of arrests for violent crimes, but by the time we get ready to start proceeding on it, the victim won’t return our calls, witnesses won’t come forward. That’s a problem.”

The main message, Smith said, is simple: if you commit a violent crime, you will be prosecuted, regardless of age.

“That one quick decision to pull a weapon and fire a gun may effectively prohibit you from living the lifestyle you could’ve had. We are going to prosecute you,” he said. “If you’re out there committing these violent crimes and we’re able to get a case on you, we’re going to make sure you’re off the street for a very long time.”