EAST LIVERPOOL — Because of a state law that went into effect in April 2021, a prison inmate who has been incarcerated for more than three decades for the 1987 murder of an East Liverpool man gets an early bid for freedom.
Billy Wayne Smith, 52, who was a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday when Kevin Burks died at the hands of four people, will face a parole hearing this month outside his cell at the NorthEast Correctional Facility. Smith was sentenced to life with parole after 59 years. But because of the passage and signing of Senate Bill 256 into Ohio law, Smith had his parole hearing moved up by almost 25 years.
Burks’ sister, Jennifer Hicks, wrote a letter to the Ohio legislature protesting the new law. She said her family received a letter last July informing them about the rescheduled parole hearing for Smith.
“We already knew that Kevin’s other murderer Robert Carpenter would come up for parole in July 2022. But this came as a surprise to us,” Hicks’ letter stated, noting that the first parole hearing was previously scheduled for 2046. “I assumed there was a mistake and made all kinds of calls to figure out what was going on. I then found out that there had been no mistake.”
Hicks wrote that her brother was 25 years old and worked as an orderly at a hospital and later at a community resource center.
“Kevin was very trusting and loyal and had a kind-hearted soul. He would give you the shirt off his back,” she wrote.
These qualities ultimately led to his demise, Hicks said.
On Nov. 16, 1987, Smith and his three cohorts told Burks that one of his friends needed help.
“Kevin innocently left with them. He thought he would help someone. But that’s not what happened,” Hicks said.
The four men drove Burks to a remote area where they tortured, stabbed and shot him and slit his throat. The murderers originally intended to victimize a specific African-American man.
“But when they couldn’t find him, they targeted Kevin, because he was also black,” she wrote.
Hicks said she was 19 and in her first year of college when her brother was murdered.
“I had to take a leave of absence,” she explained. “While the killers were on the run, my family was scared because of the brutality of what had happened. .. we were on guard until they were apprehended.
Hicks said it would be “very dangerous” to release Smith from prison.
Hicks co-defendants David Lee Hudson and Peter Martin were also convicted and each sentenced to 59 years to life in prison, while the fourth man, Robert Carpenter, made a deal with prosecutors, testifying against his partners.
Reports showed Carpenter claimed he didn’t harm Burks but was too afriad to stop the others or tell anyone afterward. Carpenter was convicted of murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery charges, and sentenced to 15 years to life, records show.
Also opposing his release is the man who worked on the case for the prosecution when it was in appeals in the late 1980s. Christopher Becker, who is now first assistant in the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office, said he doesn’t want to see Smith or any of his co-defendants released because they had plans to kill more African Americans.
“The legislature (by passing SB 256) really blew it by allowing this Smith guy an early parole hearing,” Becker said.
Hicks said releasing Smith would also be unjust, so she said she will be participating in the parole hearing so that “my brother has a face and a voice.”
“With the racial divide we have now, how can we guarantee that if Billy Wayne Smith comes out of prison, he won’t come after my family?” Hicks asked the legislature in her letter. “I cannot stand by and not represent my brother whose life was taken for no reason.”
Hicks said she participated in the last parole hearing for co-defendant Robert Carpenter in 2013.
“I couldn’t concentrate. It affected my job,” Hicks said. “Parole hearings remind me of what I know, which is that Kevin is gone and I’m never gonna see him again.”
She said to have to go through the parole hearings every five years for “an individual who should be behind bars” is a shame.
As for Senate Bill 256, Hicks said the new law has disregarded victims’ feelings.
“Victims are forgotten, while criminals are forgiven and remembered,” she said. “My brother didn’t get a second chance. And the legislature gave his killer another chance,” Hicks wrote lawmakers asking them to amend the law that favors juvenile offenders.
An email was sent to the sponsor of SB 256, Sen. Nathan Manning, R-North Ridgeville, seeking comment on the updated parole schedule for inmates such as Hicks, and Manning did not respond.
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