The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 9, 2014

Conviction leads to jail term in 2012 Lewisburg death

‘I am not a bad person; I am a young man that made a horrible mistake’

By Tina Alvey
Register-Herald Reporter

LEWISBURG — At the conclusion of an emotional court hearing Wednesday morning, the man who pushed Ira Lindberg Harris to his death down a steep flight of stairs was sentenced to a one-year jail term and fined $1,000.

Antonio Dewayne Smith, 36, who now lives in Florida, was convicted by a Greenbrier County jury in January of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the incident that took place Feb. 26, 2012. Taking the stand during his three-day trial, Smith admitted pushing the 23-year-old Harris after a verbal altercation at a party in a downtown Lewisburg apartment escalated, but said he did not intend for Harris to die.

Smith reiterated that denial of criminal intent in a handwritten statement he read to the victim’s family prior to sentencing Wednesday.

“I am not a bad person; I am a young man that made a horrible mistake,” a tearful Smith said to the four members of Harris’s family who wept in the front row of the courtroom.

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about that tragic day,” he said. “I pray that God (will) ease the pain from your heart.”

Recounting his own struggle to come to grips with what he had done, Smith told the court of contemplating suicide in the aftermath of the incident that claimed Harris’s life, but said he ultimately came to the decision that he would not “take the easy way out,” instead choosing to henceforward “live for Ira as well as myself.”

Smith begged the family for forgiveness, saying, “I am so sorry from the depths of my soul.”

The victim’s father, Ron Harris, served as the family’s spokesman, reading a statement that described his son as a person who “had a true love of mankind.”

Ron Harris, who suffers from diabetes,  said his condition was made worse by the stress and grief brought on by his son’s death. Now confined to a wheelchair, the man said he recently lost part of a foot to complications associated with the disease.

“(Ira) was the glue that kept me sane,” Harris said. “I am barely able to hold on to life.”

He said his last memory of his son is seeing the young man in a hospital bed, fighting a losing battle with massive cranial injuries.

“All that’s left of my son is a headstone (engraved with the words), ‘Gone, but not forgotten,’” Harris said.

A playwright and composer, Ron Harris told The Register-Herald in an interview following Wednesday morning’s hearing that his son — who was a talented entertainer in his own right — helped feed his creative spirit, often rushing home to Charlottesville, Va., to provide a boost.

“He would alleviate my worries,” Ron Harris said.

“But now, I wake up with the pain of him being gone. I just miss his smile and his wit. I just miss it all. My Ira — he’s gone.”

Harris said he hopes that the finality of Wednesday’s sentencing of the person who precipitated his son’s fall down that staircase two years ago will help the family find peace.

“Today is the epilogue of it all,” he said. “You have to go on and remember the good things — and there are a lot of good things to remember.”

He added, “I’m hoping I will get the strength to carry on. I just couldn’t go forward without an ending to this situation. Ira — he would want us to continue on.”

Accompanying Ron Harris at the sentencing hearing were his wife, a son and daughter and several local supporters, many of whom also sat with the family during Smith’s trial earlier this year.

---

Smith’s attorney, 11th District deputy public defender Dewitt Daniell, unsuccessfully appealed to Judge Joseph C. Pomponio Jr. to place his client on home confinement.

Saying he had already contacted Florida authorities about the possibility of supervising such an arrangement, Daniell asked the judge to “weigh the balance” between the loss suffered by Ira Harris’s family and the life lived thus far by Smith.

“This event has been an awful event for Antonio,” Daniell said. “Antonio has lived with this event as much as anyone has lived with this event.”

The attorney added, “From the depths of his heart, (Smith) suffers remorse.”

Daniell also alluded to the site of the fatal incident, a building that houses the Irish Pub, along with the upstairs apartment where the argument between Smith and Ira Harris began.

Daniell said that site “contributed to the awful consequences,” a reference that Ron Harris continued in his courtroom statement when he said, “This stairway — nearly 30 feet high — was a weapon in itself.”

Along with Smith, the building’s owners are a target of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Novella West-Harris, Ira Harris’s mother and administratrix of his estate. The civil suit claims that a lack of appropriate handrails along the steep staircase that connected the second-floor apartment to a sidewalk-level entrance contributed to Harris’s fatal fall, as did Smith by “negligently making contact with” the young man at the top of the steps.

The suit seeks monetary damages for pain and suffering, sorrow and mental anguish, loss of income and earnings, plus reimbursement for emergency medical care connected to Harris’s injuries and for funeral expenses.

---

In a written statement provided to the media after Wednesday’s hearing, Greenbrier County Prosecuting Attorney Patrick I. Via pointed out that the one-year jail term handed down by the judge was the maximum penalty provided by law for the misdemeanor offense of involuntary manslaughter.

“Today brought a conclusion to the criminal proceedings against Mr. Smith, and we are pleased that the court imposed the maximum sentence that was available,” Via said.

“While the criminal case is now completed, the family and loved ones of Ira Harris will continue to struggle with his death and the impact of his loss upon their lives,” he added.

Via said that the successful prosecution of Smith was made possible through what he said was the “extraordinary work” done by the Lewisburg Police Department, which was the investigating agency in this case.

“Several members of the Lewisburg Police Department participated in this investigation, and the work was professional and thorough,” Via said. “On behalf of the entire community, I wish to thank the Lewisburg Police Department for its efforts, especially Lt. J.C. Dove for his exceptional leadership as the chief investigator in this matter.”

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com