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Published: Wednesday, 1/6/2010

Killer to pay with his life for fateful decisions

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Vernon Lamont Smith, at the age of 21, made the decision on May 26, 1993, to walk into central Toledo's Woodstock Carryout carrying a gun with the intention of robbing the store.

Whether he meant to leave owner Sohail Darwish - a Palestinian immigrant, husband, and father - bleeding to death on the floor of the market he'd always dreamed of is a matter of debate, but Smith's decision 16 years ago to "hit a lick" has him facing lethal injection tomorrow.

Smith, who has legally changed his name to Abdullah Sharif Kaazim Mahdi while in prison, is scheduled to become the second man to die at the hands of the state via a new one-drug method that essentially administers a massive overdose of a powerful anesthetic.

Although his attorneys have asked Gov. Ted Strickland to commute his death sentence to life in prison, Mahdi refused to personally make his case to the Ohio Parole Board.

He's declined interviews with reporters and wouldn't meet with the psychologist who tried to convince the parole board that Mahdi isn't among the worst of the worst.

The parole board voted 5-2 to recommend that Mr. Strickland show him no mercy.

No family member or friend personally testified on his behalf before the parole board, although a few have spoken through letters to the board and governor. Through Mahdi's state attorneys they've declined to be interviewed for this story.

Mahdi's godmother and aunt have described a boy who was born to an abusive father who would soon leave the family. The boy was often left to fend for himself and his brother by a largely absent mother.

They and his attorneys said he eventually turned to street gangs for acceptance, dealing in narcotics while marijuana and alcohol were his drugs of choice.

Before walking into the Woodstock Carryout, he already had a lengthy juvenile record of drug dealing, assault, and conspiracy to commit robbery.

"He recalls always feeling paranoid, abandoned, and helpless, and of being out of touch with reality," wrote his aunt Patricia Dickerson, of Georgia, in a letter submitted to the parole board and Mr. Strickland.

"He even questioned his own existence," she wrote. "His mindset had left some very deep emotional scars."

In a handwritten letter urging Mr. Strickland to spare Mahdi, Eleanor Stokes, of Toledo, identifies herself as the grandmother of Mahdi's first child.

"He has two granddaughters who he doesn't know," she wrote. "He met one of them a few weeks ago. They need to know him, and my granddaughter needs to know her father. She loves him. I hate to see more lives wasted because of what one person did. I understand he committed a crime, a terrible one, but his family is also suffering."

The victim's widow, Charlotte Darwish, told The Blade that she understands that the killer's family is suffering.

"Ifeel bad for his family," she said. "They have the weight of the worry of it possibly happening when, for me, it just happened and it was over. Ifeel for them for that.

"As for me, nothing's changed," she said. "I firmly believe that whatever consequences you cause, you pay for them. I can't change my belief. Vernon Smith did this and, according to man's law and according to God's law, he's going to die. It wasn't fair what he did to Sohail. Vernon Smith placed himself in this position."

On the day of Mr. Darwish's murder, Mahdi and his wife reportedly saw the movie Menace II Society, the opening scene of which was similar to the events that followed. Mahdi later hooked up with Herbert Bryson and Lamont Layson. They went to the Woodstock Carryout to buy iced beer and, according to his attorneys, made a spur-of-the moment decision to rob the place, or "hit a lick."

Mahdi has not disputed that he followed Bryson into the store, brandishing a gun and demanding money from the cash register and the wallets of Mr. Darwish and his friend, Osand (Senate) Tahboub, who was seated behind the counter at the time.

There's also no doubt the gun in Mahdi's hand fired, the bullet striking Mr. Darwish as he reached into his pocket to retrieve his wallet. Mahdi and Bryson then turned to Mr. Tahboub to demand his money. Mr. Tahboub gave them the $2 he had on him, after which Madhi and Bryson fled, leaving the beer Mr. Darwish had just retrieved for them on the counter.

Layson would later testify that Mahdi told him he'd shot Mr. Darwish in the arm.

"[Expletive] him, he in our neighborhood anyway. He shouldn't be in our neighborhood with a store no way," Layson said Mahdi told him.

Mahdi's clemency attorneys contend he never intended to shoot Mr. Darwish and that nervousness caused the gun to go off. They point to the fact that Mahdi and Bryson left Mr. Tahboub alive to later testify against him at trial as evidence that he didn't think he'd just committed murder.

Mahdi's wife testified during the sentencing phase of his trial that he'd cried when he learned Mr. Darwish had died.

"The family would like to express our deepest sorrow to the Darwish family for the lost of Mr. Sohail Darwish," Mahdi's aunt, Ms. Dickerson, said in a written statement.

"We pray that they receive healing through spiritual guidance and prayer."

Staff writer Erica Blake contributed to this report.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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