Law colleagues, associates, friends, family, political leaders and the general public paid their last respects to former Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, 50, at Lakeover Memorial Funeral Home in Jackson on Tuesday, Sept 14, before a private burial ceremony on Wednesday, Sept 15. He was involved in a car accident in Jackson on Sept. 1 and died on Friday, Sept. 10.
The car accident reportedly happened in the rain on the night of Sept. 1 after Smith left his nearby Valley Street office near Jackson State University in an area where his family has owned property for decades. It was raining, and witnesses said a speeding driver hit Smith’s car.
Mississippi Rep. Bo Brown, D-Jackson, remembers Smith as down to earth and dutiful, open and fair and insightful, he told the Mississippi Free Press at the funeral home on Tuesday.
“I came back to give them my respects to a former DA. He is a longtime family friend of mine. I even knew his grandfather, Rev. R.L.T. Smith, who was a pioneer civil rights leader here in this city,” Brown, a former Jackson city councilman, said. “It’s just unfortunate that he was taken away at this young age, so to speak, and apparently by a reckless driver; I’m just so appalled by the fact that he was hit only three or four blocks from his office.”
“I understand that he was coming out of Hattiesburg Street, which is like I said, a couple of streets from his office entering into Lynch Street, the main thoroughfare,” he added. “And I understand further that somebody was running excessively fast on Lynch Street. Apparently, they didn’t see each other, or whatever the case may be, because of the rain.”
Mississippi Bar Association President Robert Gibbs said that people will miss Smith as a great individual and public servant in the community. “Robert and I knew each other as professionals. We worked in certain organizations together,” he said. “It’s a tragic loss for the community.”
City of Jackson Ward 4 Councilman Brian Grizzell said that Smith was “one of the greats” and broke barriers as the first Black male district attorney in the county at 37. Faye Peterson, a Black woman who is now a Hinds County circuit judge, was the first Black Hinds County district attorney, succeeding Ed Peters after his resignation.
“And he was loved by many people. He was a good guy, a friend of many, and we really appreciate him for all the work that he’s done,” he said. “This community is grateful for his work. He was a pit bull when it came to prosecution, even in his private practice, even on a defense side. He got things done.”
‘Very Smart, Very Kind’
Cynthia Skinner, Stephanie White Redmond, and Dan Course Jr. were Smith’s childhood friends. They came from Vicksburg, Miss., Atlanta, Ga., and Plano, Texas, respectively, to bid farewell to him.
“He has been a lifetime friend—since we were 3 years old—all the way through college, and he was a really great person, and he’ll be missed,” Skinner, a management consultant, said. “He made a serious impact with young Black people from Jackson, Mississippi. And he was a very strong individual, very smart, very kind. And he would pretty much just help anyone in need.”
Redmond, who attended Lake Elementary School with Smith, drove from Atlanta to Jackson on Tuesday. She remembered Smith as a socially engaging person. “He was always there for my family when I didn’t think he should be, but he was,” she said.
“But aside from that, he was just so fun socially; he gave the best party in Jackson once. It was still one of the best parties I ever went to.”
Course Jr. and Smith grew up together in west Jackson and have maintained contact since childhood. “He was such a compassionate person. We shared a lot of philosophical conversations about how to make the world better, how to influence others,” Course, project manager at Prime Controls in Plano, said.
“And Robert was passionate professionally and socially about people close to him and even people that he didn’t know, so he’ll be deeply missed.”
Before he served as district attorney, Smith was a prosecutor with the City of Jackson and a public defender with Hinds County, but became a private defense attorney involved in many high-profile cases, including defending one of controversial Jackson Mayor Frank Melton’s bodyguards, who went on armed raids with the mayor.
Smith was elected three times to the district attorney’s seat, first with the support of Mayor Melton and former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, who was involved in a $1-million bribery/legal corruption scandal that sent former Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaugher to prison and left Peters disbarred. Smith served as district attorney from 2008 until 2020.
After 12 years in the position, Smith did not seek re-election at the end of his third term, which was marred by controversy. The State of Mississippi unsuccessfully attempted to convict Smith, first for charges stemming from his efforts to keep friends and former clients from being prosecuted—the first trial ended in a mistrial, and the jury acquitted Smith in the retrial. Later, Attorney General Jim Hood’s office again brought charges against him for domestic abuse including aggravated robbery and stalking of his former girlfriend; the jury later acquitted him.
Instead of seeking a fourth term, Smith chose to run for the Democratic nomination for governor against Jim Hood, his nemesis in the trials he faced as district attorney, but lost. He then returned to private practice.
‘He Fought Them and Won’
Jackson-based attorney Dennis C. Sweet said he knew Smith all his life. “He was a great guy, and his family is a great family,” Sweet said. “He was a very bright lawyer, very hardworking, stood his ground. And when they came after him to persecute him, he fought them and won.”
“(Then-)Circuit Judge Jeff Weill and others just didn’t like the way he handled (things), and they decided to attack him,” Sweet said.
In 2016, Weill barred Smith “from any and all participation, either directly or indirectly, in any grand jury proceedings in Hinds County,” after then-Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s office accused Smith of assisting defendants, including Smith’s long-time friend Darnell Turner, who would later be convicted in Weill’s courtroom. Later, the Mississippi Supreme Court invalidated Weill’s order, allowing Smith to try cases again.
On Tuesday, at the funeral home, Jim Hill High School Principal Bobby D. Brown praised Smith’s justice and equality advocacy. “He stood steadfast when politics and the legal system were not used fairly for the African American community and the community at large,” he said.
Jackson State University President Thomas K. Hudson said Smith was a great help when he was an attorney in private practice.
“I knew him. I was an attorney in private practice. I knew him when he was a DA, always a really good guy, very helpful especially to young attorneys who like myself didn’t always know what we were doing, and really just the light for the community,” Hudson said. “We’re really sorry for his loss.”
In a Sept. 10 statement, Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens described Smith as “a friend, mentor and a sounding board to anyone who met him. He will be missed.”
Smith was born on Jan. 11, 1971, in Jackson, and graduated from Forest High School and Tougaloo College, both in Jackson, Miss., before attending St. Louis University School of Law in Missouri, graduating in 1996. He oversaw the Cochran law firm in Jackson before his death.
“Robert leaves to lovingly remember him: his parents, Dr. Lou Alice Smith and Dr. Royce Mervin Smith, Jackson, Mississippi; his maternal grandmother, Mrs. Pinkie Smith Amos, Jackson, Mississippi; son, Raphael Shuler Smith, Hawthorne, N.J.; daughter, Jada Smith, Washington, D.C.; brother, Royce Mervin (Lynda) Smith, Jr., Pearl, Mississippi; nephew, Royce LT Smith; niece; Chanita Hicks, many aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives and friends; and his faithful dog, Odie,” his obituary stated.