Gay murder convict maintains his innocence

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William F. Smithson (Photo: Pennsylvania Department of Corrections)

William F. Smithson, a gay man convicted of strangling to death coworker Jason K. Shephard in 2006, continues to proclaim his innocence in court filings. Smithson says he’s facing a lifetime in prison not because he’s guilty, but because he received an unfair trial in 2008.

In March, Smithson’s quest for a new trial received a setback when a U.S. magistrate judge recommended that he not get one. Undaunted, Smithson has submitted an appeal to a U.S. district judge, where it remains pending.

Prosecutors say Smithson invited Shephard to his Delaware County home in September 2006 and strangled him during the course of trying to rape him — after slipping a date-rape drug into Shephard’s drink.

In November 2008, a Delaware County jury convicted Smithson of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. But Smithson contends authorities failed to adequately investigate F. Bruce Covington, an acquaintance who was also inside Smithson’s home when Shephard died.

Smithson alleges that Covington injected him with drugs, and he passed out while Shephard was still alive. Covington was convicted of drug-related offenses stemming from the incident. But prosecutors say he didn’t kill Shephard, who was 23 at the time of his death.

Due to a series of legal maneuvers, Covington was excluded from participation in Smithson’s murder trial. Smithson maintains Covington’s exclusion contributed to the alleged unfairness of his trial.

On March 29, in a 52-page report, U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard A. Lloret recommended that Smithson be denied a new trial. Lloret asserted that Smithson’s 2008 trial was fair. Lloret also said there was sufficient evidence to convict Smithson of murder.

“The evidence against this defendant was overwhelming,” Lloret wrote. “The victim’s body was found inside [Smithson’s] home, wrapped in sheets, several days after he was murdered. The victim had been administered a drug, GHB, which would have incapacitated him, and the results of the autopsy showed that he was strangled. The gloves used to strangle the victim contained the victim’s DNA on the outside, and [Smithson’s] on the inside. The single other individual present, Bruce Covington, was eliminated as a contributor to the DNA on the gloves. These facts alone provide significant proof of [Smithson’s] guilt.”

Covington couldn’t be reached for comment. 

Eduardo R. Frizell, an advocate for Smithson, said there’s a “perfect” explanation for Shephard’s DNA being on Smithson’s gloves. “As the record shows, Bill used the gloves to move the body to the basement,” Frizell told PGN. “Bill confessed to that. Judge Lloret apparently forgot that the murder weapon was a ligature instrument, not the gloves.” 

Lloret couldn’t be reached for comment.

Frizell assailed Delaware County Common Pleas Judge Barry C. Dozor for permitting the exclusion of Covington from the trial, despite defense objections. Then to make matters worse, Frizell said, Dozor misled jurors into thinking Covington wasn’t inside Smithson’s home at the time of Shephard’s death.

These were Dozor’s jury instructions regarding Covington:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have heard testimony that Mr. Bruce Covington was or may have been present during the events prior [emphasis added] to Mr. Jason Shephard’s death. You must accept my instruction that Mr. Bruce Covington is not available at the present time to testify. You must not guess, speculate or draw any adverse inference as to why neither the commonwealth nor the defense did not call Mr. Covington to the witness stand.”

Frizell faulted Dozor’s instructions for not clarifying that Covington was inside Smithson’s home during and after Shephard’s death, not just prior to his death.

“We need a new trial for Bill,” Frizell told PGN. “Our justice system requires that we find people guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And that was not done in Bill’s case. We know Jason didn’t strangle himself. When the judge said Covington wasn’t there during Jason’s death, that removed all reasonable doubt about Bill.”

Rob Nardello, another advocate for Smithson, echoed Frizell’s concerns.

“I met with one of the jurors after the trial,” Nardello told PGN. “She told me at least two jurors wanted to consider Covington [as the murderer]. But they were bullied and shouted down by other jurors who said they weren’t allowed to [consider Covington] due to the judge’s instructions. That sealed Bill’s fate. It absolutely did.” 

Dozor had no comment for this story.

Smithson has filed an appeal with U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones 2d. In Smithson’s appeal, he emphasizes that Covington allegedly told untruths about the incident to police. For example, Covington initially denied being at Smithson’s home. Later, he admitted being at Smithson’s home but said he left before Shephard arrived. Eventually, Covington admitted being at Smithson’s home when Shephard was there, but said he was in the basement and knew nothing about Shephard’s murder. 

Smithson, 55, remains incarcerated at a state prison in Collegeville, Pa. while awaiting a ruling from Jones regarding his request for a new trial.

Marjorie McAboy, a spokesperson for the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, told PGN: “We believe that Judge Lloret’s report and recommendation are supported by the record.” She declined additional comment.