The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

March 27, 2013

Franklin Co. man indicted 33 years after slaying


Associated Press

— RUSSELLVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Felicia Graham's voiced cracked with emotion as she talked about the telephone call.

Franklin County sheriff's investigator Jason Holcombe called Tuesday to tell Graham that John Donald Smith, of Russellville, has been indicted for murder in connection with the Feb. 16, 1980, death of her husband, Larry Graham.

"All I could think of was 'Thank God.' I have been waiting 33 years to hear what I heard," Graham said.

Larry Graham was 28 and lived in Russellville when he was killed, authorities said.

Franklin County Sheriff Shannon Oliver said the murder indictment against Smith was issued during the recent grand jury session. He said his department reopened the case more than a year ago.

Investigators said Graham was killed during a fight with Melvin Rickard at a residence on Alabama 13 in the Spruce Pine community, south of Russellville.

The house where the fight took place was the residence of a friend of Graham's. Oliver said it still is unclear exactly what started the argument.

During the fight, Graham's throat was cut and he died at the scene, Oliver said.

Smith and Rickard both left the residence, according to reports. Oliver said Rickard, who was in the fight with Graham, was the original suspect, but there never was enough evidence to get an arrest warrant or present the case to the grand jury.

Investigators said Rickard died about 10 years ago.

"Graham's family came to us with some new information they had heard about on Feb. 13, 2012," Oliver said.

The new information, according to reports, was that during the fight, Smith had been the one who cut Graham's throat.

"The new information was that (Smith) came up from behind Graham and cut his throat," Oliver said.

He said the case was assigned to Holcombe and reopened.

"Jason reviewed all of the old evidence there was in the file, and sent the photos of the autopsy to the state forensics lab for them to review," Oliver said.

He said forensic experts confirmed Graham's throat was cut from behind rather than from the front, which was the original belief.

"I knew Melvin and I just couldn't believe he was that way," Felicia Graham said. "I knew in my heart all along that Smith was involved."

Oliver said Holcombe started going over old statements, re-interviewing witnesses, and found people who had not been interviewed during the initial investigation.

Investigators said there were four people, including two infants, at the residence when the fight took place.

"We had one witness say they had overheard Smith tell someone that he had been involved and that he cut Graham's throat," Oliver said.

Investigators said authorities found nine people who said Smith told them about Graham's death and his involvement.

Oliver said Smith has denied his involvement and after Holcombe served him with the indictment, he refused to talk and wanted his attorney. A lawyer for Smith didn't immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

"When a case is 33 years old, it takes a lot of work from the law enforcement officer and the agency involved," Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing said.

Rushing said Holcombe did an outstanding job in putting the case together.

"He did a mountain of work to get this case to where it could go to the grand jury," Rushing said.

He said Graham's family was made aware of the events of the investigation and were helpful.

"It makes me feel good that we have employees who want to put in the time and effort that Jason did on this case and brought it to this point," Oliver said.

Oliver said Smith's arrest has to be a relief for Graham's family.

"Think about it — for 33 years they have wondered what happened and who was responsible," Oliver said. "Now, we have the person in jail and this hopefully will give them some closure."

Felicia Graham said she hopes the healing process can now start for her and her family.

"Larry was 28, he had the rest of his live ahead of him," she said. She said she and her husband had been married for more than five years when he was killed.

"I lived with a lot of questions for a lot of years," she said. "I dreamed about what happened and had nightmares. It's unbelievable that this day has come.

"It's not over yet, and it will not be over until I hear he is guilty and sentenced. When justice is finally done, I will get a good night's sleep."

Oliver said the case is a good example that cold cases still are solvable.

"This proves that nothing can go unsolved. You just need to keep working and get the right information at the right time," he said.

Smith is being held in the Franklin County Jail without bail. He already was in jail on an unrelated charge.