November 14, 2012 11:50:00 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
A Columbus man will spend the rest of his life behind bars for the capital murder of his estranged girlfriend in 2010.
Joe Earl Smith, 42, of 1357 Charlie Smith Road, pleaded guilty in Lowndes County Circuit Court Tuesday to the murder of Linda Snell, who was found dead in her Cypress Park Apartment on Lehmberg Road Aug. 30, 2010. Snell was 38.
Prosecutor Forest Allgood said Smith had been harassing Snell in the days before her murder. Allgood said on the Saturday before the murder, Smith pursued Snell in her vehicle and ran her off the road before dragging her out of the car and hitting her in the middle of the street.
Smith then fled but returned to Snell's apartment sometime between Saturday and Monday. Smith forced his way into Snell's apartment, kicking though the insulated wall to gain entry.
Once inside, the two fought. Smith claimed he hit Snell once and she died instantly. An autopsy contradicted Smith's claim and showed Snell had been beaten multiple times.
Smith turned down the thermostat and locked the door, then fled the scene in Snell's Honda Accord. He also took Snell's cell phone.
When Snell's family could not reach her, they became concerned and contacted law enforcement.
Deputies with the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department forced entry into Snell's apartment and discovered her body in her bedroom just after 10 p.m. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Smith was taken into custody at a convenience store in Brooksville the following morning. Smith was also charged with three aggravated assault charges in relation to prior incidents with Snell, but those charges were dropped when Smith agreed to plead guilty to the capital murder charge.
Because Smith had a pair of prior drug convictions, he was sentenced as an habitual offender and will not be eligible for parole.
Smith could have faced the death penalty if he had chosen to go to trial.
Smith entered the courtroom clutching a Bible and was smiling and laughing with his attorney, John Hilmer. Smith's 19-year-old daughter and her mother were in the courtroom, but he rarely looked in their direction.
Snell's family was in the courtroom as well and her mother never took her eyes off Smith. Smith never looked at Snell's family.
Snell's mother had to be supported by both of Snell's teenage sons as they left the courtroom. Snell's sister, Veronica Yarborough, teared up when speaking of her sister.
"She was a very sweet person,'' Yarborough said. "She was a loving person."
Yarborough and other family members said Snell was terrified of Smith and was making attempts to separate herself from her former boyfriend.
Yarborough encouraged people to help friends or family members who may be in domestic violence situations so they don't meet the same untimely fate of her sister.
"Please take it seriously," she said. " It's a serious issue."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.