It had the makings of the trial of the century.
Dr. Arnold Smith, an eccentric but accomplished oncologist with a maniacal obsession about Lee Abraham, had been charged with hiring a felon to try to assassinate the Greenwood attorney, but the felon was gunned down instead.
The case included so many wild angles — a 14-year grudge between a pair of wealthy and prominent professionals, a deadly barrage of gunfire inside a downtown law office, a secretly recorded videotape that implicated Smith in the murder-for-hire plot, the involvement of Mississippi’s attorney general to uncover the plot — that for years it drew eye-popping headlines.
But 10 years after the armed confrontation exploded on Market Street, the likelihood of a trial seems ever more remote.
Since 2014, Smith, now 80, has been ruled mentally incompetent and, in the opinion of psychiatrists who have evaluated him, is unlikely to ever recover enough to stand trial. A protracted lawsuit filed by Abraham against Smith was settled out of court three years ago. And prosecutors appear to have lost interest in trying the doctor’s two living alleged accomplices.
The full story on “Market Street Mayhem” may never be known. Both Smith and Abraham declined to be interviewed for this article. The voluminous court files are filled with conflicting allegations, and several key documents have been sealed from public view by judicial order.
An unquenched curiosity about the case may be its most lasting aftermath.
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Charlie Smith almost blew off the call he got at home on Saturday night, April 28, 2012, from his managing editor at the Commonwealth. The newspaper had just received a tip that “a bunch of police cars” had converged near the Leflore County Courthouse.
“My response was, ‘Who cares?’” remembered Smith, who now teaches economics at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee.
“‘It’s late, it’s a Saturday night, there’re lots of times there’re lots of police cars gathered somewhere. They just kind of hang out together sometimes. A traffic stop or something.’”
But to appease his boss, Smith, no relation to Arnold Smith, agreed to make a couple of phone calls. His first went to Henry Purnell, the Greenwood police chief, who said he was en route to the scene. The next to Debra Sanders, the Leflore County coroner, who told Smith there was a death and she was heading there, too.
By the time he arrived, Smith said, a huge crowd had gathered, a swarm of lawmen were on the scene, and they were in the process of blocking off the entire street.
Over the next few hours, he began to piece together the story.
The details, still today, are a bit fuzzy.
Keaira Byrd, a 23-year-old felon carrying a MAC-11 machine pistol that he claimed to have gotten from Arnold Smith, arrives at Abraham’s law office, accompanied by Derrick Lacy, a then-25-year-old felon. Byrd is wearing a ski mask and a makeshift sling made from a bed sheet. Lacy is unarmed and wearing a bandanna.
Waiting just inside the office are two masked and armed agents from the Attorney General’s Office, Tony Green and Larry Ware. A third agent, Jerry Spell, is stationed outside. The three have been sent there with Abraham by Jim Hood, the attorney general who months earlier had opened an investigation into rumors of a plot to kill his hunting buddy and political supporter.
Soon gunfire erupts. The initial police investigation incorrectly claims that Byrd shoots first. Subsequently it is learned that Byrd never fires the assault weapon he is carrying. All 20 bullets come from the two guns Green and Ware are carrying. The agents say they fired after Byrd pointed his gun at them.
Byrd is shot six times, including a fatal shot to the top of his head. Lacy is wounded several times but survives. A bullet also grazes the leg of one of the agents.
Charlie Smith said that although it would be several hours before Arnold Smith is arrested, early on the journalist had an inkling there was a connection.
“His hatred for Lee Abraham was such that you kind of suspected him, but there was nothing to tie him to it until he was arrested.”
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Arnold Smith started off as a neurosurgeon but later gravitated toward what would become his life’s work, radiation therapy for cancer.
The Knoxville, Tennessee, native opened his clinic at Greenwood Leflore Hospital in the mid-1990s and over the years acquired the reputation of a quirky but brilliant oncologist.
He combined traditional cancer-fighting techniques with vitamin regimens to strengthen the body’s immune systems. He marketed his practice all over the country, and many of his patients swore by Smith, claiming he kept them alive after other doctors had given up on their chances. In 2009, the Mississippi Legislature honored Smith with a joint resolution sponsored by the brother of one of Smith’s patients.
“Dr. Smith is a real treasure we have here in our state,” state Sen. Johnnie Walls, D-Greenville, said at the time. “It is my honor and duty to let Mississippians know his true value and meaning.”
But there had also been signs for years that Smith suffered from paranoia and delusions. He claimed there was a plot to steal his cancer practice by surreptitiously replacing pages in a contract with a former medical partner. He produced a set of videos detailing his allegation that furniture and other household items in his Grand Boulevard home had been stolen by intruders and replaced with cheap knockoffs.
Smith’s obsession with Abraham, who lived less than four blocks away on the same stately street, became the most manic of all. It also became increasingly absurd.
The physician’s antipathy was rooted in a nasty divorce from his second wife, Sarah Smith, in which Abraham represented her. The divorce, finalized in 1998, included unsubstantiated allegations that Dr. Smith had sexually molested two of the couple’s daughters.
Smith claimed that Abraham, a devout Catholic of Lebanese descent, was a closet Muslim and a crime boss who was running a drug and prostitution ring. Smith began paying people who agreed to be videotaped making allegations of criminal wrongdoing against Abraham. Mary Smith, the physician’s wife since 2000, estimated in a deposition that Smith paid “maybe 20 or less” so-called informants $200 to $500 apiece for their defamatory stories. Ten days before the shooting in Abraham’s law office, Smith sent a letter detailing his conspiracy theories to then-Gov. Phil Bryant.
Earlier that month, Smith suffered a 3-centimeter-deep stab wound to his stomach and deep bruises on his legs during what he reported as a daytime robbery on River Road. He said he was lured to the scene by a man who falsely claimed to have compromising photos of Abraham.
Smith told Mary, whose previous husband had been a patient of Smith’s and died from lung cancer, that he believed the attack was an assassination attempt. He told others he believed Abraham was behind it. He started having his wife drive him back and forth to work.
Following Smith’s pre-dawn arrest on April 29, 2012, authorities searched his home and his medical offices.
In the latter they found the most incriminating evidence against him: a 12-minute video in which Smith agrees to pay Keaira Byrd $20,000 to kill Abraham but also wants proof that the assassination has been carried out before paying.
“You’ve got a cellphone,” the physician says on the tape he secretly recorded. “Take a (expletive) picture with a hole between his eyes.”
Authorities not only charged Smith with conspiring to kill Abraham but also adopted the unusual strategy of holding him culpable for Byrd’s death, a capital murder charge for which a conviction could result in the death penalty.
Derrick Lacy was charged with the same. Another alleged accomplice, Cordarious Robinson, was charged with conspiracy to commit murder for allegedly helping Smith to recruit hit men. A fourth individual was also initially charged in the plot, but those charges were dropped a few months later when a grand jury found there was insufficient evidence to indict.
Following his arrest, Smith was sent to the Mississippi State Hospital at Whitfield for a psychiatric evaluation. After a state judge agreed with psychiatrists in 2014 that Smith was incapable of adequately assisting his defense team, the physician was returned to the state mental hospital for two years under involuntary confinement.
For the past five years, Smith has been living with his wife at their home in Jackson under a number of court-imposed restrictions. He is prohibited from traveling to Greenwood or having access to firearms or any other weapons. He is prohibited from having contact with Abraham, Robinson, Lacy, any current or former employees of the Attorney General’s Office and a half-dozen other listed individuals. He is required to be injected regularly with long-acting antipsychotic drugs and to undergo a psychiatric evaluation every six months. His wife and a daughter are supposed to supervise him.
Three other earlier restrictions, though, were lifted by the most recent court order, issued in November. Smith no longer has to wear an electronic monitoring device, his access to bank accounts and cash are not limited, nor is his access to the internet or media.
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Lee Abraham has developed a paranoia of his own as a result of the alleged attempt on his life.
Although the 74-year-old attorney declined to be interviewed for this story, he revealed in his lawsuit against Smith and in interviews with author Richard Grant the steps he has taken to try to protect himself. Grant devoted an entire chapter to the case in his 2015 book “Dispatches from Pluto.”
Abraham bullet-proofed his Grand Boulevard mansion and installed a video surveillance system at his law office. One side of the extra-large king bed where Abraham sleeps, Grant wrote, is lined with a half-dozen guns, and the attorney usually arms himself with three handguns when he has to appear in public.
His 2012 lawsuit said that his damages “include the constant fear and worry that Smith continues to plot to kill Abraham and Abraham being isolated because his friends and family are reticent to be in his presence for that reason.”
Abraham told Grant he thought he was going to be killed the night of the shooting.
“I felt the wind of the wings of the Angel of Death, I really did.”
The lawsuit dragged on for seven years, filling up more than four Bankers Boxes in the Leflore County Circuit Clerk’s Office, before it was settled out of court in 2019 for an undisclosed cash payment to Abraham. Smith also agreed not to move or travel to Greenwood, not to harass Abraham or the attorney’s family or friends, and to dismiss Abraham as one of 14 defendants in a federal lawsuit, dormant since 2014, that alleges Smith’s arrest and prosecution were wrongful.
Although Smith’s defense team has largely conceded that the oncologist did offer to pay Keaira Byrd to kill Abraham, it has contended that Byrd had no plans to go through with it.
The defense said that Byrd’s offer to turn on Smith and sell Abraham a gun as evidence in the murder-for-hire plot was the truth, and not a ruse to carry out the assassination, as Abraham has claimed. It accused the attorney of orchestrating, with Hood’s assistance, an amateurish sting operation that went badly and resulted in Byrd’s death. To bolster their case, Smith’s attorneys cited phone records showing 26 calls between Abraham and Byrd during the six days leading up to the fatal shooting. They also pointed to Derrick Lacy’s account of what happened, made through his attorney, Aelicia Thomas of Rosedale. Lacy’s belief was that Byrd “tried to play both sides and got himself killed and almost got (Lacy) killed,” Thomas wrote in an email to prosecutors. “(Lacy) stated this is why he don’t (expletive) with white folks!”
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With Arnold Smith unlikely to ever be considered competent enough to be tried, the only criminal defendants left for prosecutors to pursue are Derrick Lacy and Cordarious Robinson.
Lacy, now 35, was released from prison late last year on unrelated offenses. According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, he presently resides in DeSoto County.
Robinson, 32, is no longer under MDOC supervision and is believed to still live in the Greenwood area.
There has been no action in either of their cases since early 2017, when a new judge was named to preside over them.
District Attorney Dewayne Richardson was among those authorities who saw the aftermath of the Market Street shooting the night it occurred. He said earlier this month that since Lacy and Robinson were cooperating witnesses against Smith, their cases would still have to wait until Smith’s case was disposed of.
Robinson’s attorney, Tucker Gore of Greenwood, said Richardson is mistaken. Gore said his client has never agreed to testify against Smith.
“They have never extended me a plea offer,” Gore said of prosecutors. “Until that happens, it’s their case. They’re in total control. If and when they extend a plea offer, we will consider it.”
Attempts to get Richardson to clarify his comments have been unsuccessful. Repeated messages to him have not been returned.
Gore said that while he could attempt to get the case against Robinson dismissed for lack of activity, he is reluctant to press the issue.
“What’s the saying? You don’t want to play with a hornet’s nest,” Gore said.
As for Charlie Smith, he said he never covered a story as sensational as this one at his subsequent stops at newspapers in Indianola and Columbia. He continues to tell people about it when they ask him about his time as a journalist.
“They’re always kind of shocked by it,” he said.
“Greenwood just has a way of producing those outlandish stories, unlike any other community I have worked in or lived in. I don’t know what it is about Greenwood. It just seems to have a knack for it.”
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.