Jury finds Smith guilty in park slayings

An East Feliciana Parish man described by a prosecutor as an “evil, evil monstrous person” was convicted Monday in the 2008 brutal slaying of his former girlfriend and her 3-year-old son and the attempted killing of two of the woman’s other young children, one of whom is his own daughter, in a BREC park near Zachary.

A unanimous East Baton Rouge Parish jury of 10 women and two men deliberated for about two hours following seven days of testimony before finding Dominique Dantoni Smith guilty on two counts each of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder.

State District Judge Tony Marabella will sentence Smith, of Wilson, on May 24. Smith, 31, will spend the rest of his life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where he was training to become a corrections officer at the time of the park attack.

Jessica Johnson Palmer, 23, of Baker, and Juan Palmer Jr., 3, were killed in the savage attack at Doyle’s Bayou Park on Port Hudson-Pride Road on May 4, 2008. Jessica Palmer was nearly decapitated, and her son’s throat was slit.

Paige Johnson, whose throat also was slit, and Robbyn Palmer were left overnight in the park for dead. Paige and Robbyn were 4 years old and 6 months old, respectively, at the time.

Paige is the child of Jessica Palmer and Smith, who were both married but not to each other.

Juan Palmer Sr., who lost his wife and son in the attack, said outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse he is glad the 5-year-long ordeal is “finally over” and that he will continue to try to move on.

“The whole situation is life-changing,” he said. “There is nothing that can bring my wife and my son back.”

Elaine Johnson, the mother of Jessica Palmer and grandmother of Paige, said her granddaughter has moved on. She described Paige as “an angel sent from heaven” and a “blessing.”

“It hurt from the beginning and it still hurts,” said Johnson, who is Paige’s legal guardian. “I forgave him (Smith) from the beginning. I still forgive him.”

Smith’s lead attorney, Daryl Gold, said Smith had nothing to say after the verdicts were announced.

“They (the jury) bought it,” Gold said of the state’s case. “I’m disappointed with the verdict.”

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he stands by the decision his office made earlier this month to drop its pursuit of the death penalty after Paige’s family expressed concern about the child’s welfare.

“It was the right decision to make,” Moore said.

Prosecutor Darwin Miller praised the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center for their work on the case. Paige and Robbyn were treated at OLOL after the attack.

Miller also applauded the victims’ families for their patience.

“They waited a long time for this. Justice has been served,” Miller said. “This verdict doesn’t bring back Jessica or Juan.”

Miller said he intended from the start to “show the jury who Dominique Smith really is.” The prosecutor described Smith to reporters as “an evil, evil monstrous person.”

In his closing arguments to the jury earlier Monday, Miller said Smith was scheduled to undergo a paternity test on May 16, 2008, with respect to Paige.

“We never got to that point because of what happened in the park,” he told the jury.

Paige, who is now 9, testified last week that her dad — Smith — and a lady “came out of the woods” and attacked them, but she said it was her father who cut her mom and brother. She also said the lady hit her mom with a bat.

Smith testified over the weekend that he was not even in Doyle’s Bayou Park when the May 4, 2008, attack occurred.

Smith’s co-defendant, Trendall Lashel Matthews, 25, of Jackson, testified last week that Smith cut the necks of Jessica Palmer, little Juan and Paige.

Matthews said she held Palmer down with her feet while Smith cut her after Smith first knocked Palmer down with a baseball bat. Matthews testified she held onto Juan while Smith cut the boy.

Matthews, who testified Smith was her boyfriend at the time of the attack, pleaded guilty in 2011 to two counts each of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder and is serving two life sentences.

Sheriff’s detectives testified previously at pretrial hearings that Smith implicated himself and Matthews in the attack. Smith said he and Palmer went for a walk, during which he grabbed her hands while Matthews attacked her, according to an arrest affidavit.

Miller, speaking of Smith and Matthews, told the jury it is not a matter of “who’s worse.”

“They’re both awful. Awful is an understatement,” he said.

Gold argued to the jury that Matthews is a liar whose word cannot be trusted. He asked the panel to be “the last defense of an innocent man.”

Miller, who acknowledged that Matthews is “every bit as evil” as Smith, called Smith a “self-professed liar” and said the jury’s verdict would be the “voice” for Jessica and Juan.