By Marc Kovac
There are pictures of Autumn Breeze Carter showing the smiling baby girl full of life and possibilities.
There are others that depict the bruised and lifeless 6-month-old’s body after her brutal rape and murder at the hands of a drunken Mansfield man nearly 15 years ago.
Steven T. Smith faces the death penalty for the heinous crime, and prosecutors and the victim’s mother urged the state parole board Tuesday to allow the lethal injection to be administered as scheduled.
“It’s hard to imagine a crime any more horrible than the one that is before the board here today,” said Richland County Prosecutor James Mayer Jr.
But legal counsel for Smith said he was too drunk to understand the consequences of his actions and meant only to rape the baby, not kill her. They argued before the panel that Smith should be allowed to live out his days in prison rather than receiving the ultimate punishment.
“This case is about as bad as it gets,” said Joseph Wilhelm, public-defender representing Smith. But “it is still not among the worst of the worst that calls for the death penalty. ... Steve did not intend to kill Autumn, and her death was the accidental consequence of Steve’s intended sexual assault.”
He added later, “If you can get past the bad facts of this case, then you can see that Autumn’s death was most likely a tragic accident.”
Smith, 46, is set to be executed May 1 at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville.
The state parole board will offer its recommendation to the governor Wednesday. Gov. John Kasich will make the final decision on whether to commute the death sentence or allow Smith’s execution to take place as scheduled.
Smith was convicted in the September 1998 murder of Autumn after an evening of beer drinking.
According to documents, Smith brutally raped the 6-month-old for 10-30 minutes during the early morning hours, turning the volume of the television up loud enough to drown out the baby’s cries. He suffocated her in the process, then placed the body in bed with her mother.
Wilhelm told the parole board that Smith likely had a blood-alcohol content of five to seven times the legal limit the night of the crime and was unable to grasp the consequences of his actions.
Much of the argument for clemency Tuesday focused on intent. Under Ohio law, a capital sentence is allowed when there is an intent to murder, but public defenders said the evidence does not prove Smith meant to kill.
Additionally, the jury in the case was not given the option of the lesser rape offense, instead having to choose between the death penalty and acquittal, Wilhelm said.
Legal counsel for the defendant also argued that Smith was thrust into a life of alcohol abuse — growing up in a family with a history of alcoholism, drinking himself as a teen and reporting frequent blackouts.
But, counsel added, Smith also was good with children and did not have a history of abusing youngsters. They said Smith has been a well-behaved inmate who has assisted with community-service projects while behind bars, and he has expressed remorse for the crime.
“This crime still weighs heavily on Steve’s conscience,” said public defender Tyson Fleming. “Every night he has trouble going to sleep because he thinks about Autumn. He still doesn’t understand what made him do what he did. Steve should definitely be punished for his actions in this case, but he should not be executed.”
But prosecutors countered that Smith was coherent the night of the murder and tried to hide evidence in the case, dumping a diaper, beer cans and a shirt in an outdoor trash container.
Mayer described the horrific condition of the victim’s body — numerous bruises and cuts, the imprint of fabric on her forehead from being pushed into couch cushions during the rape, patches of the baby’s hair found on a couch and coffee table.
Prosecutors also said Mayer declined to get treatment for alcoholism and had a criminal history that included domestic violence. And they offered evidence that suggested Smith potentially abused Autumn earlier — a photograph of the baby girl with what appears to be a fabric imprint on her forehead weeks before the murder.
“Autumn Carter would have been 15 years old on Friday,” said Jill Cochran, appellate attorney in the Richland County prosecutor’s office. “She would be a freshman or sophomore in high school, preparing for prom perhaps, for summer break. ... She is not here today because of the defendant.”