By Curtis Bunn
Urban News Service
When a New Orleans gunman ambushed, shot and killed Baton Rouge Cpl. Betty Smothers who was escorting a grocery manager in her cruiser to make a night deposit on Jan. 7, 1993, it was not the first time the mother of former NFL star Warrick Dunn had met her killer. Ironically, six years earlier, Smothers caught her future assassin, Kevan Brumfield, shoplifting but she let him go – giving him a chance to turn his life around – a chance he threw away when hid in the darkness and shot the 14-year veteran police officer in the forearm, chest and head. His accomplice, Henri Broadway, also fired five times, striking Kimen Lee, a Piggly Wiggly assistant manager, who miraculously survived multiple gunshot wounds and took control of the cruiser where she drove to safety and called 911. This is a story of contrasting lives – a famous football player who at 18 years old took responsibility for his five siblings after losing his mother juxtaposed against a killer with a long criminal record who worked only three months of his entire adult life. And it’s a story of a justice system that for more than 20 years has left Dunn with a wounded soul still waiting to heal from that fatal night that spun his world off its axis.
At the heart of his discord is the back-and-forth legal drama around the case leaving Dunn bitter about the justice system. Brumfield, who confessed to the crime, has been on death row since his 1995 conviction, but five years ago he won an appeal to determine if he is mentally disabled. Broadway remains on death row awaiting for his final appeal to be heard. A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Brumfield was eligible for a hearing on whether he is intellectually disabled. The court, in a 5-4 decision, threw out a 2014 appeals court ruling that barred Brumfield from asking for the special hearing in which a lower court judge subsequently found he was intellectually disabled. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the fiery dissent, retold the crime in detail and placed a picture of Dunn’s mother clad in her uniform next to her police car to remind the court of the tragedy.Thomas dismissed Brumfield’s argument that his actions were the product of his disadvantaged background. The justice called it “striking in light of the conduct of Corporal Smothers’ children following her murder. Most widely known is that of Warrick. Though he had turned 18 just two days before Brumfield murdered his mother, he quickly stepped into the role of father figure to his younger siblings. In his view, it “was up to [him] to make sure that everybody grew up to be somebody.” Thomas closed by calling the majority decision disheartening. “It spares not a thought for the 20 years of judicial proceedings that its decision so casually extends,” he wrote. “It spares no more than a sentence to describe the crime for which a Louisiana jury sentenced Brumfield to death. It barely spares the two words necessary to identify Brumfield’s victim, Betty Smothers, by name. She and her family—not to mention our legal system—deserve better.” The court’s decision means Brumfield, now 42, remains on death row, but his fate is in limbo. “And that leaves me and my family in limbo,” Dunn, 40, told Urban News Service. “You get to the highest court in the land and we still have issues getting peace? How can after all these years, someone now say, ‘I have mental issues’ when you can plan a robbery, commit an act and not have any remorse. That’s not mental retardation. It’s just a decision that you made. “So, we still don’t have peace with anything. How is that fair to my family? That tells you about the justice system. It’s hard to believe in the justice system.”
Despite this turmoil, Dunn has changed lives—including his own. Two hours before discussing the legal case, Dunn handed the keys to a new home to the 144th parent since 1997. Warrick Dunn Charities independently and with other companies and organizations places single parents, first-time homeowners into new houses and provides financial support and home furnishings.
“I can’t find the words to describe what Warrick Dunn did for me,” said Derrick Gant, who walked with his pair of teenage sons into a three-bedroom house that was fully furnished and completely stocked with food and supplies, televisions and computer in January. “All I had to do was bring my clothes. It was amazing. I just wish I had the words to describe how grateful we are.” “I tell people he’s fascinating,” said Lisa Chester, the executive director of the Warrick Dunn Charities. “I didn’t know who he was before I started working here. He was working on his MBA at Emory (University) and I was dealing with him on a daily basis. I learned quickly that he’s totally humble, but he’s extremely passionate about what the charity is doing. He’s all about thriving so he can help as many people as possible.”
Dunn’s good deeds extend beyond his charity. Tia Meriweather, who was awarded a house in suburban Atlanta in 2005, recalled two years ago when one of her two sons was severely injured when struck by a car. A Dunn staffer saw the story on the news. “Warrick Dunn reached out and offered to help in any way we needed,” Meriweather said. “He came to the hospital. He stayed with us. He was amazing. So he’s been with us through the highs and the lows. We’ll never forget that.”
Providing homes for single, first-time homeowner parents has been Dunn’s way of honoring his mother. He admired her commitment and said he has used “changing people’s lives for the better as therapy. The connection is there with my mother because I’m able to live out her dream. To see the joy when they open that door and to see how thankful they are really makes me speechless. Those are the times I can reflect on when I have a tough day. Changing someone’s life for the better can help me get through those tough times.”
Even though steady counseling helped, Dunn said he was bitter and often unhappy, even as he starred in the NFL for 12 years, earning millions and racking up more than 10,000 rushing yards for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons. But what happened next was far more inspiring than his prowess on the gridiron. Dunn visited death row at Angola State Prison in Louisiana to meet the man who killed his mother in 2007.
It was something I came up with and my counselor believed I had to do,” Dunn said. “I had to forgive. For all those years after he killed my mother, I was joyless. He took away the times I could have been smiling and enjoying life instead of crying. “But I had reached a place where I was trying to take control back of my life. A lot of times, when you have issues, all your power is gone. And for so long my outcome was because of what I went through. I just got to a point where I needed to be at peace with myself and my future.” In his 2008 book, Running For My Life, Dunn went into great detail about that encounter with Brumfield. In the Urban News Service interview, he opened up more.
Meeting Brumfield did not turn out as Dunn expected. He was stunned when Brumfield denied killing his mother—it was something Dunn knew was a lie and had not heard him say in the past. Brumfield’s posture prevented Dunn from asking the questions he came prepared to present: Did you think of the consequences of your actions? Do youfeel remorse about your actions? What would you say to our family?
Still, Dunn said what he came to say—that he forgave Brumfield and that “at 18, because of your actions, I had to become a man and raise my sisters and brothers. . . Things weren’t easy on my family. . . I was depressed for years. . .” “But,” Dunn went on, “the biggest part was saying I forgave him. I needed to say that to move on. It was emotional for everyone there. Brumfield had tears in his eyes, too.”
That visit changed Dunn’s life, he said. He could go on changing other people’s lives having changed his own through the ultimate forgiveness.
And Dunn does so with little fanfare. “My sons didn’t know who he was,” Gant, 37, said. “But they do now. And his photo sits in a frame in the living room. That’s how much he means to us.” Impacting others, facing Brumfield in prison, counseling and continually honoring his mother have combined to help Dunn become a happier person, he said. “I’m in a much different place in my life. Counseling is important,” said Dunn, who has also developed a Children Bereavement Program. “In the black community, there’s a misconception that if you go to therapy you’re crazy. In reality, therapy is for people who are together and want to stay on the right path. “A few years ago, I couldn’t talk like this. I wasn’t as open, as forth coming, I was so shy and laid back, reserved. And over the years, I’ve learned to celebrate my mom and make her proud. I’m able to help spread her love to other parents who are doing the same thing she did for our family.”