Although he allegedly made a jailhouse confession to her relatives, a neighbor the family suspects in the disappearance of an Austin teen six years ago may not be criminally charged, said a legal expert not involved with the case.
Jimmie Terrell Smith, who hinted to police and in news reports since 2011 that he has information into Yasmin Acree's disappearance, allegedly told family members he knew about the teen's death. Yasmin, then 15 years old, went missing Jan. 15, 2008 from her West Congress Parkway two-flat where Smith was a neighbor.
Smith was arrested in 2009 and charged with a string of rapes between 2006 and 2009. He is in Cook County Jail, awaiting trial for the alleged rapes of five women, including the kidnapping of two 14-year-old girls. Smith, who faces 172 counts of sexual assault and kidnapping, has not been charged in connection with Yasmin's disappearance.
In August, Smith contacted Yasmin's adoptive mother, Rose Starnes, and a cousin Rev. Ira Acree seeking a meeting at the Cook County Jail. In that meeting, Smith reportedly told Starnes and Acree that Yasmin killed herself and that he disposed of the body by burning it in a garbage can.
While the alleged confession is of little comfort to Yasmin's family, it's not enough to bring charges against Smith, said Andrea Lyon, a clinical professor of law and associate dean of Clinical Programs at DePaul University. Lyon said she wouldn't exactly call Smith's supposed "confession" a confession.
"He made a statement that is suspicious. But he didn't confess to doing anything," Lyon said.
What Smith alluded to was concealment of a suicidal death, which Lyon said is not a crime.
"There is a crime called concealment of a homicidal death, but there is not a crime of a concealment of a suicidal death and that is all he confessed to," she said. "He didn't say he did it. He didn't say anything other than he hid it."
While Lyon said the police should pursue all leads in the case, without evidence, his statement doesn't warrant any criminal charges and is inadmissible under hearsay.
"I don't know if there is any legal liability for him based on his statements alone," she explained. "His statements are certainly provocative and seemed to indicate involvement in her death, but without more evidence, if I was the state, I would be hesitant to charge him."
Victim rights advocates say it's rare for criminal offenders to contact a victim's family. They cautioned such contact by an offender could be an attempt to exert power and control of the victim and the victim's family.
The nature of Smith's alleged crimes – violent assault and sexual assault – is all about control, said Kristy Dyroff, of National Organization for Victim Assistance, a victim's rights organization.
The contact made with the family could be seen as another attempt to re-victimize the victim, added Dyroff, Alexandria, Va.-based NOVA's director of communications. She said one psychological effect of being a crime victim is the loss of control—something victims and their family want to regain.
"This is a type of exploitation," said Dyroff.
"The families are victims and so prone to revictimization," she said. "The easiest victim is someone who has already been victimized and victims are commonly the target of scams and other exploitation. That's what makes it a difficult and unfair situation."
But Dyroff said families need to figure out what they need to move forward. In some cases, it would be helpful talking to the offenders, while others it would not. Her group tries to help families, "reach justice at whatever level they are comfortable with."
"There is no way to make victims whole," she said. "There is nothing about the system that does that —not through money; not through the person serving substantial time in jail or capital punishment. Those things will never make the victim whole again and, frequently, the (judicial) process re-victimizes the family."
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, of Marsy's Law for Illinois, agreed. Her group also advocates for crime victims' rights and has sought a constitutional amendment to legally guarantee rights of crime victims in Illinois. She said families achieving closure or healing from a violent death of a loved is a myth. Families, however, can achieve "finality of moving forward," Bishop-Jenkins said.
"Every victim's family is different," she said. "Some are best in their lives when they completely put it behind and walk away and never think about it again. For some people that is the healthiest choice.
"For others they do like me…. They want to run into that fire. They want to know everything that has happened. They want to understand it. They want to work through it," Bishop-Jenkins said.
In 1990, Bishop-Jenkins' sister, Nancy Bishop-Langert along with her husband, Richard, and unborn child were shot and killed in north suburban Winnetka. The suspect, who is serving three life sentences, taunted the family by coming to the funeral.
Bishop-Jenkins urged Yasmin's family to be skeptical of Smith's motives. She said Smith could be trying out different versions of what happened to minimize his own culpability.
"It could be that this guy is figuring he is going down anyway and is trying out a version of the story to see if he can create a different path out of a murder conviction," she said. "Obviously rape is bad enough, but at least someday he might walk free again. A rape, murder and dismemberment, he'll get life."
Smith's attorney Richard Kruss with the Cook County Public Defender's office, had no comment on this story.
For more information visit: www.marsyslawforillinois.org and www.trynova.org.
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