Alabama inmate’s death appears to be caught on video; family calling for change

Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 8:58 PM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Can you imagine having to learn your son has been murdered through a text message, then seeing that killing caught on video hours later?

That’s the unimaginable situation an Andalusia pastor and his wife found themselves in last October when they learned their son had been stabbed to death inside Donaldson prison.

Now they’re sharing their story in hopes of changing what they call a broken system where more than 220 inmates died last year, including 40 in Donaldson prison alone - 7 of them homicides.

Though it’s blurry, the video is hard to watch. Denarieya Smith’s family believes it shows his murder inside Donaldson Correctional Facility early in the morning of October 1, 2022, and it’s something his parents had been worrying about for months.

“We watch the news and we see what he’s talking about as they’re showing it on TV what’s going on in Donaldson,” says Alfagus Smith, Denarieya “DL” Smith’s dad. “In our mind, we got a son up there. That’s what’s on our mind all the time, it could happen to him. The main concern, even though he was there and we talked to him, the main concern on the back of my mind was ‘when are we gonna get this call’?’ You’re scared, you’re scared.”

But it wasn’t even a call - it was a text from another inmate’s contraband cellphone that delivered the horrible news.

Smith read from his text messages: “Saturday October 1st at 6:29am. “yo, ain’t this DL’s people?” “yes.” he said “Somebody killed him about 2 hours ago.” I said “what”. Got up out of the bed. “Ya’ll get a lawyer for real, because they had no security in the dorm when it happened, and he sat here and lost too much blood before they got him out of here.”

“I fell out the bed on the floor hollering “no,” remembers Linda Smith, DL’s mother. “I just couldn’t believe it. It’s heartbreaking, don’t understand why this had to happen to him. I just walked around in a daze for the next few days really.”

Smith’s parents say they heard nothing from the prison for hours, until DL’s dad, a pastor, reached the prison chaplain who could only tell him his son indeed was gone.

“No information then, still haven’t gotten any information from Donaldson Correctional, no one. We didn’t get no answers, we still haven’t gotten no answers.”

The most information they have about how DL died? The video that came to them through social media.

“I watched it probably 2 times,” Smith says. “I was telling Joel today, since October the first, every time I go to bed---that image, that image of sitting there watching your child wrestling for his life, then to lay there on the floor. You can see people filming it, nobody’s doing nothing. To lay there.”

“They’re people too, and although they’re there to serve a sentence, they’re not sentenced to death,” says Joel Caldwell, the Smith family’s attorney.

DL was serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole for an attempted murder conviction, a fact his family doesn’t shy away from, but also says it doesn’t mean he deserved this.

“Even though he was charged with this crime and got this sentence, he still was helping people in that prison,” Alfagus Smith says. “He was in there and he was helping, helping those young guys coming off the street. That’s what he was doing, that was his legacy. This is not going to be the end of DL Smith’s story. DL Smith’s story is going to bring a change about the way they handle things in the AL Dept of Corrections. People need to be treated as human beings. Just because you got a sentence, that don’t mean you can be treated any kind of way.”

DL Smith was one of at least 89 inmates who died in just the last 3 months of 2022. The Alabama Department of Corrections says 225 inmates died in the fiscal year that ended last September, but that’s all they will say about deaths as they’ve now changed their policy on reporting inmate deaths. They’re now only reporting the deaths in a quarterly report released on their website.

“ADOC is not trying to be held accountable,” Caldwell claims. “It makes no sense to stop reporting unless you know there’s a problem. If you’re doing that policy what’s next? Are the Smiths or families like them never gonna get a call from ADOC? How are they going to find out about their loved ones passing away? It’s a lack of transparency and you know there’s a problem, that’s why they’re instituting that policy.”

We asked the ADOC for an interview about DL Smith’s death, but they declined and said in a statement “The ADOC Research and Planning Division recently reviewed its posted statistical reports and decided to only post inmate death statistics on the quarterly reports because those numbers reflect the findings of closed investigations. However, monthly statistics are still available through the Public Information Office as requested.”

We asked Governor Ivey’s office about the change and her office saying in part: “Commissioner John Hamm and the Alabama Department of Corrections are sharing all necessary information, but in a more accurate way. They are not withholding information, and media should not misconstrue that here. Governor Ivey committed to the people of Alabama her Administration would be open, honest and transparent, and she continues to make good on that promise.”

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