LUCASVILLE, Ohio - One family wept loudly and another family cheered Wednesday as a man was executed for killing a 6-month-old as he raped her.
Steve Smith, 46, was executed by lethal injection at the state prison in Lucasville in southern Ohio for the 1998 killing of his live-in girlfriend's daughter, Autumn Carter, in Mansfield.
Smith had recently tried to get his sentence reduced to life in prison, arguing that he was too drunk to realize that his assault was killing Autumn and that he didn't mean to hurt her. The Ohio Parole Board and Gov. John Kasich turned him down unanimously.
In the 25 minutes between when Smith walked into the death chamber flanked by prison guards and when the lethal injection killed him, his only child, 21-year-old Brittney, and his niece sobbed and shook with grief.
Smith declined to say any last words, then looked at Brittney sitting behind a pane of glass.
"I love you," Brittney said as she wept.
Smith turned his head away and appeared to be struggling not to cry, his chin shaking.
As the lethal injection began, Smith took several heavy breaths before he closed his eyes. He was pronounced dead at 10:29 a.m.
Less than 3 feet away from Brittney and separated by a wall, Autumn's mother — Kesha Frye — watched Smith quietly. After he was dead, Frye's sister pumped her fists in the air.
"I'm glad he's dead, and I hope he burns in hell," Frye said surrounded by her family after the execution.
Frye's father and Autumn's grandfather, Patrick Hicks, said Smith's execution was too good for him.
"Because of him, Autumn never had a chance to take her first step, she never had her first birthday or a first day of school," he said. "It's just unfortunate that this man gets to die a peaceful death after the torture he put Autumn through."
Days before the execution, Brittney Smith said that she has never believed her father killed Autumn and that he had only admitted to it because he had given up hope.
"I know my dad's innocent," she said. "I do not believe he did this, and you know, he raised all my cousins, my sister before I was even born, and he never did anything (sexually)."
After the execution, Smith's attorney, Joseph Wilhelm, said that his client "felt great remorse for the tragic and shocking crime he committed."
"He was well-behaved and sober while in prison, causing no problems in the institution and living each day with the guilt and grief caused by his alcohol-fueled crime," said Wilhelm, who also witnessed the execution. "While some may trumpet his execution as appropriate revenge for his crime, Ohio is no safer having executed Steven Smith than had he lived the remainder of his natural life in prison."
Back on the night of Sept. 29, 1998, Frye was awoken by Smith, her live-in boyfriend of four months.
Smith, who was drunk and naked, laid a naked and lifeless Autumn on Frye's bed, according to court records.
Frye rushed the baby and her other 2-year-old daughter to a neighbor's house and called 911. Autumn was pronounced dead after doctors tried to revive her for more than an hour, and Smith was arrested.
The baby was covered in bruises and welts and had severe injuries showing she had been brutally raped, though no semen was present.
At the home, there was no sign of forced entry, and police found a large amount of white cloth that came from Autumn's diaper strewn about; police found the rest of the diaper in a garbage bin outside, along with 10 empty cans of beer.
At the time, Smith told police that he "didn't do anything."
"I'm not sick like that," he said.
At trial, Smith didn't testify in his own defense on the advice of his attorneys, even as prosecutors repeatedly referred to him as a "baby raper," showed pictures of Autumn's battered body and told jurors that her assault lasted up to a half-hour.
Expert witnesses for Smith testified that he might have accidentally suffocated the girl within three to five minutes of the assault.
The jury found Smith guilty of aggravated murder and sentenced him to die.
At an April 2 hearing in which Smith sought to have his death sentence reduced to life in prison, Smith told the Ohio Parole Board that he was sorry and wished he could ask Autumn for forgiveness.
Smith spent his last night eating pizza, fried fish, chocolate ice cream and soda, listening to the Cincinnati Reds play the St. Louis Cardinals, mailing letters and visiting with his daughter and niece, prison officials said.
Smith became the 51st inmate put to death in Ohio since it resumed executions in 1999. The state has enough of its lethal injection drug, the powerful sedative pentobarbital, to execute two other inmates before the supply expires. Eight more inmates are scheduled to die from November through mid-2015.