Nicholas Payne faced the man who shot his only child to death, and in a calm and steady voice offered him a path to forgiveness.
In the early morning hours of May 20, 2008, Cornell Smith climbed up onto the Mission Hill balcony of the apartment where Rebecca Payne, 22, lay on a couch. He was armed with a handgun and looking to settle a score with a woman he believed was an informant — a woman who looked like Payne, but who lived two floors below her.
“Mr. Smith used a gun. This was Rebecca’s undoing, but it was also his, because he can shoot faster than he can think,” said Nicholas Payne in Suffolk Superior Court Friday. “I suggest to him that for every day for the rest of his life, he should write to a different senator or congressman asking them to fix the laws so that people like him cannot get access to guns. To the extent and diligence with which he does this, he can feel that I have forgiven him.”
Smith, who was sentenced Friday to 18 to 20 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and unlawful possession of a firearm, sat slumped in his chair as Rebecca Payne’s parents and friends recalled a warm and funny young Northeastern University student who dreamed of becoming an orthopedic doctor and who had just fallen in love for the first time.
Smith made his plea in a quiet voice. When asked by Judge Jeffrey Locke why he was pleading guilty, he gave a barely audible answer: “I’m a father, too. . . . It’s not who I am, so it’s better for everybody.”
In February 2008, Smith was arrested on drug charges, said Assistant District Attorney Ian Polumbaum, and he blamed two sisters he thought were informing on him. On May 16, 2008, while he was out on bail on those charges, he fought with the two women, and one of them stabbed him. And so, just before 3:30 a.m. on May 20, one of his customers drove him to Payne’s building, where he climbed inside, seeking revenge.
Payne was home alone, and had fallen asleep on the couch. She was probably getting up off the couch when Smith started shooting from the doorway, said Polumbaum. He hit her five times: twice in the legs, twice in the torso, and once in the chin, he said. She screamed, and, her father said, crawled into her bedroom. Neighbors heard the shots and her cries, said Polumbaum, but no one called 911. Smith fled. Payne’s body was discovered about three hours later, after a neighbor noticed her door was ajar.
Later in 2008, Smith, who was incarcerated on other charges, made statements in recorded phone calls alluding to the killing, said Polumbaum, and prosecutors indicted him on first-degree murder in 2012.
But in 2014, the state’s star eyewitness died. Anthony White was the only person able to place Smith at the scene, and his death nearly destroyed the case. Then, a prosecutor looking through a federal case file found letters Smith had written in early 2014 to a federal judge — in which he admitted the shooting. Those letters proved “critical” to reviving the case, prosecutors said.
“The case was really in real jeopardy of being terminated,” said District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, who attended Friday’s hearing and called the case the saddest and most tragic he has ever handled. “But for a judge here in this court asking for more information about his drug case pending in federal court, and some real digging by one of our assistant district attorneys unearthing these letters, we might not be here today.”
In court, Rebecca Payne’s mother, Virginia Payne, mounted the stand with a framed picture of her daughter and her husband by her side.
At first, her voice shook. The last time she hugged her daughter, she said, was when the young woman cooked Mother’s Day lunch, and wanted to know, “How do you know when you have met the one?”
Everything reminds her of her daughter, she said, and every day is a struggle. “We don’t celebrate any holidays anymore: Christmas, Thanksgiving,” said Virginia. “Because she was our little elf. She would take care of everything. Even in the middle of the night, she would get things done.”
Payne still sleeps with the last pair of jeans her daughter wore. “Mr. Smith stripped us of everything that mattered,” she said.
Payne asked Locke whether she could ask Smith some questions, but the judge said it would not be appropriate. Among her questions: “What was Rebecca’s last moment like?”
As Payne left the stand, she handed a court officer a yellow flower, in honor of her daughter’s favorite color, to be given to Smith to remind him of the young woman. Before Locke imposed the sentence, he told Smith to turn and face the packed gallery, which was filled with friends and family members clutching photographs of Payne, yellow flowers, and packages of tissues.
“That is the face of Rebecca Payne,” said Locke, as Smith swiveled in his chair, his face blank. “This is the collage of the people affected. And it is the collage I hope you see each and every night for the next 18 years.”