What follows is the latest installment of Homicide Diary, an ongoing project in which we speak to those who have been impacted by or who deal with the aftermath of homicide in Little Rock — victims' families, prosecutors, cops, defense attorneys, community activists and others. Currently, the number of Little Rock deaths classified as homicides since Jan. 1 stands at 25.
If you want to find retired LRPD Homicide Detective Ronnie Smith on any given night, he's probably at the gym. He goes seven nights a week if he can. Sometimes you'll catch him on a spinbike, but mostly, he's a runner. He has run the Boston Marathon five times. Smith started with the department as a patrolman in 1976, and transferred to Homicide in September 1983, working sexual assaults for the first few years. He was called to be a police officer, he says, using the same word a priest or monk might use. When I asked him for a ballpark figure of the number of homicides he worked in his career, he said "about 187" before admitting it wasn't an estimate. It's 187, and the details of most of them are still locked in his heart: the girl from Mount St. Mary Academy who came to the department for a class project a few months before her body was found dumped in Ferndale; the woman who jealously shot into her husband's car, the bullet finding a toddler strapped into a safety seat; the grocery store manager, killed by thieves, whose widow Smith had to inform that her husband wasn't coming home while her two children looked on. While others transferred in or out of Homicide, Smith stayed with the unit until 2006. Since then, he's served as a bailiff in the court of Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza, who he met when Piazza was a young prosecutor back in the old days. Running helps him think, Smith says. It helps him think about other things than what he's seen.
I worked my first homicide on Thanksgiving Day 1983, down at 14th and Woodrow in an old duplex there just east of the intersection. These two guys were fighting over a turkey leg, and one shot the other one. It's kind of hard to believe that a human being will take a life over a turkey leg. But you go ahead and work it. You submit the case to the prosecutor's office, and let it go from there.
I'd seen dead bodies by then. Being a patrol officer, that's part of the job. Sometimes you can kind of become desensitized to it, which is good in one aspect, but also can be bad in another. Maybe it's cold to say, but you start to look at the body as evidence. There's not a whole lot you can do about what happened beforehand, but at least when you get to the crime scene, you can kind of take control. You have control over those circumstances. You can work the crime scene and do what you have to do to try and bring it to a conclusion and make an arrest. I can't control why that guy shot and killed someone. That's just the sinful nature of man. It's the sinful nature in his heart. That's the only way someone could do that to someone, and I guess we're just born with that nature. But once you get there, you can control what happens inside that crime scene. You can do the best you can for that family. You can bring closure for them. You're never going to bring that person back, but you can do the best that you can.
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