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Convicted as teen in '98 homicide, Buffalo woman to be freed thanks to domestic violence law

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patrice smith

Patrice Smith is led from court after being found guilty in the murder of Robert L.A. Robinson Sr. in October 1999.

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Patrice Smith sobbed inside Albion Correctional Facility Thursday as she told a judge what getting freed after 21 years means to her.

Smith, who was convicted of murder and robbery in 1999 when she was 17, had been serving a prison sentence of 25 years to life.

But thanks to a new state law adopted last year – the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act – Smith was eligible to be resentenced.

On Thursday, Erie County Court Judge Sheila A. DiTullio – the same judge who sentenced Smith 21 years ago – gave her a 12-year prison term. Having already served more than that amount of time, Smith will soon be released.

“I will never get back my childhood,” Smith said, “but because of you, your honor, I will leave prison knowing what he did to me mattered.”

DiTullio, who in 1999 imposed the maximum allowable sentence, agreed to issue the new sentence after she said "the court learned the full picture of this case." Smith was raped and sexually abused by the man she killed and he exploited her and threatened to expose their relationship, the judge said.

"Our criminal justice system allows for mercy, for reflection," DiTullio said, "where the defendant herself is a victim."

This case was the first time in Erie County the 2019 law was successfully used to get a defendant resentenced, District Attorney John J. Flynn said.

Robert L.A. Robinson Sr., 71, was strangled to death in his home in the city’s Hamlin Park neighborhood on Dec. 15, 1998.

Robinson, a minister at the Soul Saving Revival Center on Fillmore Avenue, was killed with a telephone cord. His house had been ransacked and his car stolen. Investigators suspected the motive was robbery, The Buffalo News reported at the time.

There was no sign of forced entry at the house. Neighbors told police Robinson, who had an alarm system, barred windows and a surveillance system at his home, was cautious about letting anyone inside he didn’t know.

Family and friends described Robinson, who helped start the revival center with his late wife, as someone who helped people in need.

Less than two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Buffalo police arrested Smith, then 16, and a 17-year-old girl.

At the time of their arrests, homicide detectives said Robinson had been friends with the two teens since the prior summer, had given them money and clothes and taken them out to eat.

At the teens’ arraignment in February 1999, one of the defense attorneys accused Robinson of being a sexual predator. Prosecutors at the time told the judge that Smith, only two months earlier, denied there had been any sexual contact.

At Smith’s trial that October, prosecutors told the jury Smith strangled Robinson because she wanted money to pay attorneys in a pending Buffalo City Court case. One of the teen’s former boyfriends testified Smith and her accomplice “joked about robbing” Robinson before the slaying, “but they never said they were really going to do it.”

Smith testified at her trial she started having sex with Robinson when she was 15 and within weeks of meeting him. She testified that she and the other teen accidentally strangled Robinson after he threatened to shoot her because she refused to have sex with him that night.

Robinson’s son, Robert Robinson Jr., declined to comment on Thursday.

Last year, a new domestic violence law was enacted that allowed for incarcerated people to ask a court to consider issuing a new sentence in their case.

Without the ability to be resentenced, the earliest Smith could get out of prison would have been December 2023, said Kate Mogulescu, attorney with the Brooklyn Law School’s Criminal Defense & Advocacy Clinic, who helped prepare Smith’s application to the court.

More than 100 organizations signed a letter sent to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office urging him to support her resentencing, Mogulescu said.

She said Smith, now 38, was able in her application to the court to inform the judge of “who she really is.”

On Thursday, Smith told the judge she deserved to go to prison and “wished every day since that night that I could have done something different.”

Back during her trial, Smith said she felt “like no one cared” and that she “somehow deserved it.”

“I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain how shame can silence you,” she said.

Smith has obtained associate and bachelor’s degrees while in prison, and is working on a master’s degree, Mogulescu said.

“Today marks the beginning of a new chapter for Patrice Smith,” Mogulescu told the judge during the court proceeding, which was conducted over videoconferencing.

Under the 2019 domestic violence law, a person is eligible if the defendant at the time of the offense was a victim of domestic violence who was “subjected to substantial physical, sexual or psychological abuse” and “such abuse was a significant contributing factor” to their behavior.

The district attorney, whose office opposed Smith’s bid to be resentenced, said he disagreed with DiTullio's decision. Flynn called Robinson's killing a "brutal homicide" and said Robinson has now been characterized as a rapist based solely on the word of the person convicted of killing him.

Flynn said he agrees with the intent of the law and that if a 71-year-old man was having sex with a 15- or 16-year-old, that it’s a crime and is domestic violence.

His opposition in this case comes down to the details: Smith lied numerous times to the police and changed her story about what happened several times, he said.

Flynn said even if he is wrong and what Smith alleged happened, he does not believe the abuse was “substantial,” nor that it was a “significant contributing factor” to what she did.

“I don’t necessarily believe Ms. Smith,” he said.

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