Inside the Courts

Judge’s error cuts Charlotte inmate’s sentence in half

Antonio Smith
Antonio Smith

What would you do if someone gave you a decade of your life back?

Antonio Smith has time to mull his answers. But he’s already received some advice.

“Don’t waste it,” U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney told him this week.

“I won’t,” the orange-clad inmate replied.

Smith appears to have ample reason to use his unusual windfall wisely. His wife and children showed up for his court hearing, and Smith told Judge Whitney that he loves them all.

But the 32-year-old Smith also has this thing about armed robberies. Court documents indicate he’s been charged and convicted in state and federal court in connection with at least four, including several instances where multiple offenses were consolidated into a single count. He robbed one Charlotte drugstore when it was an Eckerd. After Rite Aid took over, he robbed it again.

Smith was convicted of federal robbery charges in July 2013. In October 2014, Judge Whitney sentenced him to more than 12 years.

But before the judge signed his sentencing order, federal prosecutors appealed – arguing that Smith qualified as an “armed, career criminal” who had earned a far longer punishment. In time – and that’s the key here – Judge Whitney agreed. In January 2015, he increased Smith’s prison stay to 272 months, or almost 23 years in prison.

The Universe, though, provides in peculiar ways. Smith appealed, and a higher court ruled this year that Judge Whitney had erred as much on a logistical point as a legal one.

Federal rules gave the judge only two weeks to change Smith’s sentence once he had orally handed it down. Judge Whitney admitted in court this week that he thought the clock started after he signed his sentencing order.

The result: Smith’s second and harsher punishment, which came more than two months after the judge’s first oral order, was thrown out and the original 142-month term reinstated.

On Tuesday, Judge Whitney told Smith of his error and did the math to show the prisoner just what a windfall he had received.

“Please,” Judge Whitney told him, “you’re benefiting from something that you don’t deserve. Don’t go back and rob another drugstore.”

Whether Smith follows that advice remains to be seen. The statistics aren’t promising. Considering Smith’s criminal history and assuming he’s at least 40 by the time of his release, he has almost a 50 percent chance of being arrested within five years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Almost 70 percent of the 405,000 prisoners released in 2005 by 30 states were back in custody within three years, according to a 2014 bureau study.

Smith conveyed his respect for the courts’ job of “protecting our community.” He thanked God and his defense attorney, and turned toward the audience to express his love for his family.

He also promised to follow Judge Whitney’s advice.

“I’m a totally different person,” he said.

Time will tell.