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Trial of inmate charged in deadly 2018 S.C. prison riot begins

The riot at Lee Correctional Institution left seven dead and more than a dozen injured; it was the deadliest prison riot in the U.S. in the last 25 years


Michael Smith, right, appears in court in Lee County on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. Smith is on trial in the killing of a fellow inmate at the Lee Correctional Institution during a deadly riot in 2018.

John Monk/

By John Monk
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A Lee County jury on Tuesday heard clashing visions of how state prison inmate Michael “Flame” Smith stabbed and killed another inmate in 2018 in a wild gang brawl between the Bloods, the Crips and and Gangsta Disciples during a deadly prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution.

Smith’s lawyer, Aimee Zmroczek , said the night of April 15, 2018, turned into a multi-hour “killing season” at Lee Correctional Institution, where the inmates ran amok while prison officials didn’t act, correction officers “be-bopped around” and any actions that Smith took against the inmate who was stabbed to death, Cornelius McClary, were done in self defense.

That night, riots where gangs battled gangs and people were stabbed and killed started in one dorm and spread to two others, she said in an opening statement to the jury on the trial’s first day.

Smith was in the final dorm to be attacked, growing more afraid by the minute, Zmroczek said.

“There is no worse fear than to know people are coming for you,” Zmroczek told the jury. Smith saw his friends being killed and their bodies tossed on the ground “like pieces of trash,” she said.

Jurors will hear testimony that the prison was understaffed and inmates had warned of coming trouble before the riot, she said, adding that inmates have a right to be protected.

Prosecutor Barney Giese spun a sharply different narrative and told the jury it would watch a video showing McClary being knifed.

“It’s graphic, but we have to show it too you... Mr. McClary was stabbed 97 times — 97 stab wounds,” Giese said in his opening statement.

The jury will see Smith chasing McClary down a stairway, stabbing him, and McClary stumbling off and dying, Giese said. At the time, McClary was unarmed, Giese said. Word of the spreading riot was disseminated on social media and by the contraband cellphones inmates had, he said.

Giese also said inmates have a right to live free from fear, but he was referring to McClary — not Smith. “Just because you are in prison doesn’t mean you don’t matter,” he said.

Smith is a Blood; McClary was a Crip. Seven inmates died in the 2018 riot and 17 inmates were badly injured, many from improvised blades, in what was one of South Carolina’s and the nation’s deadliest prison riots in the modern era.

As the lawyers spoke to the jury, Smith — a small man at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds wearing a blue shirt and dark slacks — sat at the defense table listening. He faces three charges: assault and battery by mob involving death first degree, conspiracy and possession of a weapon by an inmate.

Smith is the first of the 47 inmates indicted as a result of the riots to go on trial. Eleven others have pleaded guilty to various charges. He is expected to testify.

At age 31, Smith has spent nearly one-third of his life behind bars.

At 19, Smith spent 10 months in state prison for violating probation given him on a burglary conviction.

At 20, he was charged with attempted murder in the shooting of University of South Carolina freshman Martha Childress , who was paralyzed for life by a stray bullet from a stolen Glock that Smith — drunk and high on marijuana, according to evidence at his trial — fired on a crowded nighttime Five Points sidewalk. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Now 31, Smith is going on trial again in McClary’s killing.

The mob charge carries a 30-year to life sentence, and a person must serve 85 percent of whatever sentence is handed out before being eligible for parole.

“He’s a hoodlum,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told The State newspaper in 2013 after Smith’s arrest in the Childress shooting.

In 2020, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that Smith had been wrongly convicted of attempted murder because prosecutors had argued that he had intended to shoot Smith. But evidence showed instead that Smith had been aiming at someone else and his bullet struck Childress by chance. The crime of attempted murder must carry the element of intent, the high court ruled, overturning Smith’s conviction and sentence.

Since then, Smith has been held at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center .

This week 5th Circuit Solicitor Byron Gipson said no decision has been yet made on whether to retry Smith in connection with the Childress shooting.

Jim Carpenter , a member of the Childress family, said Monday the family has no comment at this time.

Giese, a former 5th Circuit solicitor, was specially hired by state Attorney General Alan Wilson to prosecute Lee County prison riot cases. Assistant prosecutors are Margaret Scott , Stephen Lunsford and John Conrad .

Zmroczek, a Columbia defense attorney, also represented Smith at his 2015 trial in the Childress shooting.

At that trial, a gang expert testified over Zmroczek’s objections that Smith is a documented gang member of the Bloods, a gang that has a national reputation for violence and criminal acts. He has a Bloods gang tattoo and uses gang signs, testified Richland County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Vince Goggins .

The judge in the prison riot trial is Ferrell Cothran Jr .

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