An unknown assailant’s bullet cut down Jonathan Smith on a Gentilly street corner in January 2013. He never walked again.
Smith spent the next 2½ years undergoing a series of painful surgeries. Every time he went under the knife, his girlfriend remembers, he would pray to wake again so that he could see his son — now 10 — once more.
Weakened toward the end by what relatives say were avoidable medical complications, Smith went home. In his final weeks, the man known to friends as “Scoop” spent nearly every waking moment with his son, counseling him to follow a straight and narrow path.
Finally, on Aug. 28, Smith died. He was 27. Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, ruled his death a homicide earlier this month.
His delayed death illustrates the struggles of the hundreds of victims of non-fatal shootings every year in New Orleans. It also prompted relatives to say they would remember Smith for how he lived, including his long, difficult struggle to survive.
“They didn’t give him much of a chance,” said his mother, Debra Smith. “They didn’t think he was going to make it the night that he was shot. Oh, but God stepped in and kept him with me for 2½ years. It was a miracle.”
Smith grew up in Gentilly, where he met 9-year-old Lashawn Kennedy, who would become the mother of his son. She said she resented her older brother’s tall friend at first because he would tease her by stealing her ice cream. But by the time she was 13, they were an item.
“Hated each other in elementary school, middle school sweethearts, teen parents,” summarized Kennedy, now 27.
They named their son Jonathan after his father and called him “JJ” for short. He was born five days before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Both of his parents moved to the Dallas area after the storm but were back in New Orleans by 2006.
From the time he was a baby, Kennedy said, JJ was a daddy’s boy who would poke his head out whenever he heard his father’s voice.
Smith and Kennedy worked at a seafood restaurant in the French Quarter, she as a server and he as an oyster shucker. After work, they would go to a bar on Iberville Street to trade stories about their day and laugh at their customers.
In his free time, Kennedy said, Smith played video games and enjoyed a remarkable lucky streak at the Harrah’s Casino craps and blackjack tables. Most of all, he loved to dance to bounce music or anything else he could mimic.
Sitting in the Algiers optician’s shop where she now works one of two jobs to support her son, Kennedy’s face lit up when she was asked to remember her favorite song that Smith would dance to, Mario’s 2004 R&B hit “Let Me Love You.”
Although the pair remained friends, they broke up in 2012.
Smith was just steps from his parents’ house at Harcourt Drive and Paris Avenue when a man approached him about 7 p.m. on Jan. 27, 2013. The unknown gunman shot him several times, according to a police report.
Kennedy said JJ was the first to notice that something was wrong. When he heard the gunshots, she said, he peered out the window to see his father lying on the ground.
“He woke Miss Debra up, and he told her, ‘My daddy is on the ground,’ ” Kennedy said. Debra Smith quickly called 911 for help. Kennedy credits her son with saving his father’s life.
Starting from scratch
Smith’s death 2½years later opened a rare window onto the hundreds of shootings logged every year in New Orleans that do not end in a quick death. As of October, the city was on pace for 160 murders this year — but for 389 shooting incidents that result in injury.
The district detectives assigned to solving nonfatal shootings must juggle those investigations with muggings, beatings and other crimes against people. The Police Department does not expend as many resources on solving such shootings as it does on homicides.
The NOPD averaged a 20 percent clearance rate for nonfatal shooting incidents between 2010 and 2014, according to statistics compiled by former city crime analyst Jeff Asher. The department routinely posts clearance rates more than twice that high for homicides.
The usual obstacles to solving a homicide in New Orleans, such as skittish witnesses and an undermanned police force, have been further complicated in Smith’s case by the long period between the shooting and his death.
Lt. Jimmie Turner, chief of the NOPD’s Homicide Section, said detectives must attempt to re-interview witnesses and reconstruct a long-ago crime scene.
“Basically, we have, for all intents and purposes, to start from scratch,” he said.
Turner said the first officers to respond to Smith’s shooting met with “some sort of resistance from the victim.” A police report said medics were already preparing to take him to the hospital by the time officers arrived, so police were unable to interview him at the scene.
In many nonfatal shootings, Turner said, victims or witnesses are reluctant to cooperate with police investigations because they fear retaliation. The “street code” of silence may outweigh their desire to help authorities punish the attacker.
A killing inevitably takes away one key witness, the victim. But when someone dies in a shooting, Turner said, “witnesses may be more inclined to come forward because it’s an actual death, and a tragedy.”
‘A lot of black boys die’
Smith’s case remains open and police have named no suspects. Kennedy does not expect that they will. She said she does not know why Smith was shot. A woman who witnessed the shooting, she understood, has not cooperated with police.
“You know, a lot of black boys die, and people forget about them,” Kennedy said. “But he wasn’t the kind with the gangs. He was a good person.”
On the night of the shooting, Smith lost massive amounts of blood, and doctors gave him little chance to live. The gunshots had damaged his spinal cord so deeply that he was paralyzed below the waist. But somehow, he survived.
Smith at first appeared to be on track to a partial recovery. The shooting prompted him and Kennedy to reignite their romance, and she became one of several caregivers who helped turn his body over to prevent bedsores.
When relatives moved him into a long-term care facility in Algiers in an attempt to get better care for him, Kennedy said, his condition instead took a turn for the worse.
One bedsore multiplied into many, and his foot became infected with gangrene. Finally, he was forced to go back to the hospital. Months before he died, both of his legs were amputated beneath the knee.
Debra Smith’s voice faltered as she recalled all her son’s health problems. While she viewed his survival as a miracle, she said, it also took a heavy toll on her.
“He went through so much, so much pain,” she said. “And every time he went through it, I went through it, too.”
Throughout all those hospital visits, Kennedy said, “He fought. A lot.”
“He always would say, ‘I just asked God: Can I see my son one more time? I want to see him again.’ When he would go to the surgeries, that’s all he would ask for.”
‘You still have your daddy’
In August of this year, Jonathan Smith moved back into his parents’ home in Gentilly. He spent his last three weeks with his son at his side. Relatives remembered that as the two played their favorite video games, Smith told his son that school had to come first.
Since those final bedside father-son chats, Kennedy said, JJ’s grades have shot up well above state averages. Although his legal name is Jonathan Kennedy, the boy intends to formally rename himself Jonathan Smith Jr. in honor of his father.
On Aug. 22, Jonathan Smith went to the hospital for the last time. His death surprised Kennedy, who had seen him fight through so many hospital visits before.
Rouse, the coroner, said his office conducted an autopsy, reviewed medical records and consulted the initial police report to determine the manner of Smith’s death. The peritonitis and sepsis that took Smith’s life, he said, stemmed from the 2013 shooting.
“Whether a person passes 20 minutes or 20 years after a shooting, if the cause of death is directly related to the shooting, that case is appropriately classified as a homicide,” Rouse said.
At the funeral, Kennedy said, Smith’s son calmly walked up in front of the mourners and performed a poem in his father’s honor.
The only moment he showed his emotion was when his father’s remains were placed in the mausoleum.
Kennedy said her mother walked up to the boy to comfort him.
“Your daddy is always in your heart,” Kennedy’s mother told him. “That’s just his shell that’s going in there. You still have your daddy with you, through everything.”