SPARTANBURG COUNTY, SC (WSPA) – Forty-two years after his first arrest, William Tommie Smith landed back behind bars.
The Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office charged Smith with murder.
Smith’s family said he admitted beating 55-year-old Brenda Kay Tanner to death with a baseball bat that she’d kept in her bedroom for protection.
“There’s good people in this neighborhood and they’ve all been out talking and praying for this family, which I very much encourage you to do,” Sheriff Chuck Wright said to assembled media outside the Dec. 2 crime scene. “This is just a crazy thing.”
Over the years, Smith had been the beneficiary of a statewide system of early release and second chances, from parole to pardon, that may have finally come to an end at the Inman home where Tanner lived.
A LENGTHY RECORD
In 1976, Smith was 21 years old when police records show he robbed a Dairy Queen.
Smith was convicted and sentenced under South Carolina’s Youthful Offender Act.
In 1981, Spartanburg Police Department charged him with grand larceny after his arrest at Spartanburg General Hospital. Smith got probation.
Later that decade, in 1989, Smith robbed a convenience store, stealing beer, cigarettes and cash. He led Spartanburg Police on a chase that ended with a police cruiser flipped onto its roof.
One of the two officers inside was taken to the hospital while the other, reserve officer Jessie Woody, later told 7News he suffered back injuries that cut his law enforcement career short.
In the 7News video archives, a Spartanburg officer from the scene of that chase said, “When I got here, the police car was already turned over and I saw smoke, and I didn’t see the officers that was in the police car. Finally, I saw one of the officers come out.”
Smith was again convicted of armed robbery and an added charge of assault and battery with intent to kill. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was released after only 5.
That meant Smith was out of custody in 1997 and able to rob a Lil’ Cricket convenience store.
Court records and arrest reports show Smith threatened to shoot the clerk and stole about $30.
A judge sentenced him to 12 years. Smith was freed on parole after two years.
A FRESH START
After his release from prison, Smith began a romantic relationship with his parole officer. Smith’s family said she later quit her job and became a teacher so she and Smith could marry.
Once in that relationship, those who know Smith said his life began to change.
“She opened his eyes, you know,” Smith’s brother-in-law, Buddy Brannon, said. “She was always going to church and everything. They got married and they went to church every Sunday.”
Smith was ordained as a minister and became a deacon at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church. His pastor there, James Splawn, said Smith was a “good man” who had turned his life around.
In 2014, Splawn was among the family and friends who attended a pardon hearing on Smith’s behalf in Columbia. In his pardon application, Smith wrote, “I have given my life to the Lord and am in the ministry.”
The South Carolina Board of Paroles and Pardons agreed, and Smith was given a full pardon for all the crimes on his record. He had a clean start on a new life.
VIOLENT CRIMES PARDONED
In South Carolina, a pardon like the one given to William Tommie Smith is not unusual.
Offenders with a history of violent crimes are often pardoned, as are most of the people who apply for one.
In each case, applicants pay a small fee and fill out an application to the state board. That board then has the power to grant or decline a pardon request.
There are seven members on the pardon board, one from each of the state’s congressional districts. They meet once a month in a small conference room in a Columbia office building.
In January, five board members decided 64 pardon cases. Forty-nine of the people who asked for a pardon — that’s 75 percent — got one.
The board pardoned the same percentage of applicants the month before.
In each case, a single applicant is called into the room and seated at a table. Most bring friends or family to attest for the new, law-abiding, life they’ve lived after their most recent conviction.
Because there are so many people waiting for a hearing, each one is brief. Few last more than five minutes.
The board members use tablets to display the criminal record of each person they hear. But in many cases, the final decision about who gets a pardon and who doesn’t depend on what’s said in those five minutes.
“This is a day we feel good. It really is. We are helping a lot of people today,” Board Chairman Hendy Eldridge said.
Eldridge asks most of the questions during the interview. In most cases the questions are similar, all designed to find out if the pardon applicant has learned from his or her mistakes.
“I’m looking, has the person changed? If they had a drug problem, did they take care of that? Have they shown they are a part of the community? Have they shown they understand?” Eldridge said.
In January, several pardon applicants with violent criminal records were pardoned by the board, including at least two people with convictions for armed robbery.
In one case, an applicant with a record that included convictions for “pointing and presenting a firearm” and “assault” was able to convince at least two board members who said they planned to reject his pardon, to grant him one based on his answers to their questions in that five minute interview.
There are few set requirements for a pardon. The members of the board have wide discretion to decide who qualifies and who doesn’t.
The process is largely subjective. The board is serious about considering each applicant and eager to help people get a fresh start.
Chairman Eldridge admits they don’t always get it right.
Sometimes, he said, people he’s already pardoned will re-appear before the board, having gotten arrested again, looking for a second pardon.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Pardons fully restore the civil rights lost by a criminal conviction. That includes the right to serve on a jury, the right to vote and hold public office. A pardon also restores gun rights to convicted felons.
In South Carolina, someone convicted of a violent crime cannot own a gun. Federal law goes much further, banning any convicted felon from owning a firearm.
Local police don’t normally enforce federal laws, but many departments, including some Upstate sheriffs, will sometimes refer convicted felons to federal authorities for prosecution under gun laws.
Many of the people appearing before the pardon board say they’re interested in getting their gun rights back.
One man, convicted decades ago in a gun crime, told the board he had been bow hunting but as he got older he wanted to hunt with a rifle. The board restored his right to do so.
Other applicants also said they wished to regain the legal right to carry a weapon whether for work or personal defense.
“Everybody on the board knows that’s my hot button and I’m the biggest second amendment rights guy in the room,” Eldridge said. “But, if a guy has assault charges and he wants a concealed weapon, I’m going to ask a lot of questions.”
BACK BEHIND BARS
William Tommie Smith was in trouble with the law less than two years after he got his pardon.
In 2015, he was arrested on a drug charge.
The following year he was charged with domestic violence.
Then, in December of 2018, he turned himself in on a murder charge. Deputies said he’d confessed to killing a woman by beating her to death.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Brannon said. “Somebody just walks in that you know, and you know them to be pretty much all right, and they say, ‘I just killed Brenda, killed her with a baseball bat.’”
It was Brannon who first called 911 to report the crime. He now says the pardon may not have been a good idea.
“It must not have been right because he went back and did what he did,” Brannon said.