Crime

Institutionalized killer's request for release denied

In the summer of 1973, Johnny Lee Smith was traveling on a Greyhound bus from Oakland to Los Angeles when he believed he received instructions from his father to kill one of his fellow passengers.

He picked out a stranger on the bus -- a Fresno sailor returning home on leave from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise -- and killed him while he slept as other passengers looked on, horrified.

Smith, then 18, was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent into the state's mental hospital system, where he has spent the past 34 years.

Now 52 and in declining health, Smith sought to be released, but on Wednesday, a Fresno County Superior Court jury rejected the request. Smith can again seek his release in 2009.

"He's old, he's sick," his attorney, Eric Christensen, said in an interview. "I don't think he's a danger anymore."

But the Fresno County District Attorney's Office and officials at Napa State Hospital -- where Smith now is housed -- opposed his release.

"He still has active symptoms of his mental illness," prosecutor Becky Gong told jurors. "Even on medication now, he is still not to that position where he can safely be released back into the community."

The only choices for the 12 jurors in the courtroom of Judge W. Kent Levis Jr. were to release Smith or keep him hospitalized.

Either had to be unanimous.

Nobody from Smith's family was present, though Christensen said many still live in the Los Angeles area and send him money. There was also nobody from the family of Calvin Wilson, the 22-year-old sailor who Smith killed in 1973.

News reports from the time say trouble started on Highway 99 just after the bus had crossed the San Joaquin River and entered Fresno County.

Taking the stand on his own behalf, Smith recalled that Wilson had gone up to talk with the bus driver. When Wilson came back to his seat, Smith felt Wilson was the man his father wanted him to kill.

In testimony, it was stated that Smith believed his father was a mob boss and he had to carry out a hit on his enemy.

Wilson fell asleep and Smith moved into the seat behind him, he testified. He then reached around the sleeping Wilson and grabbed him in a choke hold. Witnesses quoted in news accounts from the time say Smith delivered several karate chops to Wilson's throat.

"It's very vague because so much was going through me at the time," Smith testified.

Smith went on to hijack the bus with the intention of taking it to Los Angeles.

When the driver said he didn't have enough gas for the trip, Smith forced him to drive around Fresno before he allowed the bus to stop at what was then known as Valley Medical Center so Wilson could receive medical attention.

Smith was later apprehended on the hospital's fifth floor and Wilson was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

After being sent to the state's mental health system, Smith spent time in Atascadero State Hospital, Napa State Hospital and Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County.

During testimony in Smith's trial, Napa officials said he was accused of rape while being held in one of the mental health hospitals, though never charged. Smith said it was consensual sex. Officials also said he was paranoid, showed no remorse for the crime and had difficulty controlling his anger.

Christensen painted a different picture.

In 2000, Smith was first eligible for release, and Christensen represented him at that time. "I didn't have a prayer in that case," said Christensen, who recalled Smith was angry and hostile during the trial.

He didn't seek release in 2001, 2003 or 2005.

The man Christensen now represents, he said, is overweight, with high blood pressure, spinal compression and a pacemaker. He doesn't exercise and mostly watches television.

He also said Smith has shown remorse for the murder.

Smith testified that he still hears voices, but now they soothe him.

Though Smith must wait two years to again seek his release, Christensen can file a petition seeking outpatient treatment for his client. He is considering such a request, and expects Napa officials to oppose it.

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