October 4, 2012
A Wichita man is free again after spending a year-and-a-half in the county jail, all while insisting he was innocent. A jury acquitted Thomas Smith of all charges, but not before the man went through extreme trouble to get his case heard.
If you're charged with a crime, you have a constitutional right to a speedy trial, but what happens if you don't feel you're being represented by the public defenders tasked with giving you a fair shake?
"I was thinking I'm going to lose everything I ever had," explained Thomas Smith. "And I lost everything I ever had."
Smith was booked into the Sedgwick County Jail on February 25, 2011. Police and the district attorney claimed he assaulted and robbed his sister's boyfriend during a drug deal gone bad. From the very beginning, Smith claimed he didn't do it, but he says getting his public defenders to work with him proved more than challenging. Sometimes when it came time for a hearing, Smith hadn't even met or spoken with his attorney about the case. Many hearings, he claims he wasn't even allowed to attend or notified of.
"It used to be that if you took me to the courtroom, at least I got to hear what happened," Smith said. "But today, I can't even get in the courtroom to know what happened and then by the time I do know what happened, it's six months later and I'm getting a deal that I didn't sign."
His trial was continued an astonishing 25 times while he went through five attorneys. The court finally appointed Steve Mank to take the case about three weeks ago.
"The victim in this case, quite frankly, concocted a story to cover himself or his own misdeeds and he got caught," said Steve Mank, Smith's final attorney. "He got caught in a lie and that's why they (the jury) acquitted him."
When Smith wouldn't enter into a plea deal, the DA's office threatened to increase the charges to aggravated robbery. The office eventually followed through with that threat, but the court lowered his bond; something that didn't make sense to either Mank or Smith.
"I believe it boils down to... a few judges and a few prosecuting attorneys with the power and authority to manipulate the courts," Smith said.
Mank, however, believes it's a factor of a swamped court system that nobody wants to pay for.
"We don't want to put money into the defendant's defense," Mank said. "We don't have enough public defenders, We don't have enough retained attorneys to help out and the legislature's not willing to help pay for that."
At the end of a two day trial, a jury of twelve unanimously found Smith not guilty on Wednesday. KAKE News attempted to speak with DA Nola Foulston, but she declined to go on camera for this story.
Foulston did, however, say the case became challenging when the alleged victim had a stroke and lost much of his memory about the event.
Mank, however, tells a different story.
"Thomas Smith said his sister was involved in this and she knew the victim," Mank said. "Nobody ever talked to her except our investigator."
The victim, Douglas Smith, waited more than three hours to report the crime after saying he had been beaten with a hammer and robbed. Police found no marks or injuries on Douglas Smith's body, according to Mank.
"And he also said that after he'd been robbed at hammerpoint, he went back to painting a room, cleaned up after himself, drove home and then called police despite the fact that a sheriff's officer lives across the street," Mank explained.
Foulston, though, believes Smith abused the system by continuing his case over and over while claiming he couldn't get along with his attorneys. Ultimately, Foulston said she sees no connection with Smith's lengthy continuances in any way bearing on the results of the jury trial.