By Terry Cregar
SPARTANBURG — Father Eugene Leonard is asking for help, not for himself but for a Massachusetts man who has spent more than half his life in South Carolina — held by the state for something he says he didn’t do.
For the past 10 years, Leonard has worked to free Vaughn Smith, a 50-year-old man sentenced to life in prison nearly 30 years ago for the murder of a Kershaw County sheriff’s captain.
“Is society better served by having this good man stay in prison?” said Leonard, who makes the 26-mile trip twice a week from his Spartanburg apartment to Tyger River Correctional Institution, celebrating Mass with Vaughn and about a half-dozen other Catholic inmates at the medium-security prison.
Though he admits to shooting the deputy, Father Leonard said Smith, who is an African-American, has told him he acted out of fear for his own life. The officer had stopped Smith on July 2, 1973, on suspicion of armed robbery, a crime for which he was also convicted.
“He was a young guy at the time who was scared to death, and he panicked,” Leonard said.
The 76-year-old Leonard said he met Vaughn in 1992, when Vaughn was serving time at Northside Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison in Spartanburg. At that time he was on a work-release program with the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind. Smith was counseling troubled young people at that time.
Leonard said the point isn’t whether Vaughn was guilty or not guilty. The important thing is that Smith’s required post-conviction review didn’t take place until 19 years after he was found guilty.
“He got a hearing, but it wasn’t a regular review in light of the fact that it did not have the transcript of the trial. How can you review a trial without the transcript?” Leonard said.
“My contention is (Smith) did not get justice.”
Leonard, who retired from the priesthood in January after serving 13 years as pastor of Our Risen Savior Parish in Spartanburg, said he spent $1,500 of his own money, plus another $3,500 from the parish to hire an attorney to represent Smith, a move he hoped would lead to parole.
But, Smith’s 12th parole hearing – this one held in May in Pickens – ended like the previous 11. Motion denied.
“The attorney took the $5,000 and didn’t do anything,” Leonard said.
At the time of the trial in the fall of 1973, a U.S. Supreme Court-ordered moratorium on the death penalty spared Smith his life, timing that in hindsight might have worked against him, Leonard said.
“He probably would have been luckier if he had gotten the death penalty because the case would have automatically been reviewed.”
Leonard said Smith has no family in South Carolina, although he did marry a woman he met while on a work-release program at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind 10 years ago.
“I blessed the marriage,” Leonard said.
Smith converted to Catholicism 15 years ago.
“Vaughn Smith isn’t bitter after all these years,” Leonard said. “He’s a very good man who hasn’t gotten justice.”
Father Leonard said he has not heard from any members of the sheriff captain’s family since starting his campaign to free Smith. But, if he were to meet one, Leonard said he would tell them that Smith never intended to kill the man.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but here’s a man who has served 30 years in prison for a tragic mistake, a tragic accident,” Leonard said.
“Jesus died so that sins could be forgiven. This man is very remorseful, so we need to give him a chance to make something of his life.”
Leonard said he’s not trying to “toot his own horn” with his efforts to free Smith, but simply following one of the precepts of the church.
“Jesus said ‘I was in prison and you visited me,'” said the priest. “Here is a person in distress, and if we can do something to make his life fruitful and worthwhile, then I think we should do that.”