Mississippi Supreme Court rules prisoner can get workers’ comp while serving manslaughter sentence

Lonnie Smith
Lonnie Smith
Lonnie Smith

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — A former utility worker who lost his hands when he was shocked by power lines can receive workers’ compensation, even though officials argued he tried to hurt himself to avoid a homicide investigation, the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled.

Lonnie Smith pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the homicide case and is now serving a 12-year prison sentence. Smith, a former alderman in Ripley, Miss., was injured in April 2010 while working in a bucket-lift truck for the Tippah Electric Power Association.

In its 6-3 ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission to determine the benefits Smith should receive. The court’s majority rejected the power association’s claim that Smith intentionally grabbed the power lines to injure himself or commit suicide.

According to court records, no one could say they saw Smith grab the power lines in a deliberate manner. Smith said he got entangled in the wires after he dropped a knife in the bucket and reached down to get it.

A safety expert for Tippah testified the lines Smith allegedly grabbed were three feet, seven inches apart. The distance, the expert testified, would have made it difficult for Smith to accidentally touch both lines at the same time.

Some of Smith’s co-workers testified he had been behaving differently before the incident. Tippah officials said they had called Smith in for a drug test the day he was shocked.

Smith applied for workers’ compensation benefits shortly after the incident.

The Workers’ Compensation Commission appointed an administrative judge to hear Smith’s claim for benefits. The judge ruled in May 2010 that Smith intentionally injured himself and was not entitled to compensation. The Mississippi Court of Appeals upheld the ruling last May.

Court documents show both the judge and the commission found the power association had proved its argument, presenting evidence that Smith was being investigated for his role in a man’s killing, that co-workers reported his unusual behavior and that several witnesses saw Smith grabbing the power lines after the incident began.

Justice Ann Lamar, writing Thursday for the majority, said Tippah offered nothing but speculation. She said without an eyewitness, “there was simply insufficient evidence to support a finding that Smith intentionally grabbed both the primary and neutral lines in an attempt to commit suicide.”

Justice Josiah Coleman, in a dissent joined by two other justices, noted there was evidence Smith was the subject of a homicide investigation, and law enforcement officials had obtained a DNA sample from him just days before he was shocked.

Coleman said Smith had worked for Tippah for 16 years and was an experienced lineman with a good performance record.

“Several co-workers testified that Smith’s demeanor was different on the day of the incident, and he was not joking around as he usually did. Another said there had been tension among the crew for the past two weeks,” Coleman said. “It is my opinion that there is substantial evidence in the record from which it could be ‘reasonably inferred’ that Smith intentionally grabbed the lines.”

According to court records, authorities investigating the incident suggested Smith tried to kill himself because he feared imminent arrest after the body of Antrozon Wallace was found on April 19, 2010, in Tippah County. Smith has denied that argument.

Smith was charged in August 2010 with capital murder in Wallace’s death. He pleaded guilty in November 2011 to manslaughter and is serving a 12-year sentence.

The Mississippi Department of Corrections website shows Smith is in the hospital unit at the state prison in Parchman.