“I have to unlearn all of this legal stuff,” he said. “I think I can make a transition in a couple years.”
The transition is one to author and playwright so the 63-year-old Smith can develop fully the ideas and outlines for three books and two plays he keeps readily available on his iPad.
His first piece of nonfiction will offer a look into the lives of seven women after he represented them. Each criminal defendant was accused of murdering her husband, and each was acquitted. Smith received a lot of criminal work over the years through his partnership as a young lawyer with Billy Murphy but never specifically sought the wives as clients.
“It wasn’t fortuitous; it was serendipitous,” he said.
The first of the clients was Ethel Mae Gordon in the early 1980s, the wife of an abusive, alcoholic husband. One night the intoxicated husband called to say he was on his way home.
“She decided she was tired of getting beat up, so she got a .45 from her relative,” said Smith, a Baltimore solo practitioner.
Gordon shot her husband dead in the vestibule of their house. Even without the domestic violence laws in place today, Gordon was found not guilty by a jury that “believed she was in fear,” Smith said. She later successfully sued for her husband’s insurance proceeds.
The most recent case involved Alpna Patel, a Canadian dentist in an arranged Hindu marriage whose trials more than a decade ago garnered international attention. (Patel’s conviction on voluntary manslaughter was overturned by the Court of Special Appeals in October 2002.)
“Now she’s known all over the world as someone who killed her husband,” Smith said.
There really is no such thing, in other words, as a defendant “getting off.”
“The consequences of murdering your husband may be even more hurtful if you are found not guilty than if you are convicted and served time,” Smith said.
Smith’s other book ideas are both for biographies. One is of Dr. Martin D. Jenkins, president of then-Morgan State College when Smith attended and “the foremost black social scientist of his time,” as Smith put it. The other covers legendary civil rights lawyer Dovey Roundtree.
As for his plays: one is about growing up with alcoholic, twin uncles in East Orange, N.J.; the other imagines Thurgood Marshall taking a train ride from the Deep South back to Baltimore.
If Smith’s goals in retirement seem like another man’s goals in a lifetime, he remains unfazed.
“I’ve always been somebody who says, ‘This is what I want to do,’” Smith said.
The irony is Smith wanted to be a psychiatrist but could not afford the schooling after graduating from what is now Morgan State University.
“I never wanted to practice law,” he said. “The cheapest thing I could do was go downtown for the University of Maryland School of Law.”
Smith’s literary plans would not be his first foray into the arts. He performed in local community theater groups for 25 years, sometimes in as many as six shows a year. But he rejects the lawyer-actor comparisons. Acting is interpreting a character; practicing law is devising a strategy and narrative based on the facts.
“You become the playwright as a trial lawyer,” he said. “You actually have to put it into practice. You have to make it come alive for the jury. It’s much more poignant than theater.”
Smith is matter-of-fact about his pending retirement, however. He is donating all of his papers to the Monumental City Bar Association. He plans to sell his St. Paul Street office building to other lawyers and spend at least half the year in Georgia to hone his new craft.
“I have to stop practicing to start writing,” he said.