After serving more than eight months in the Salt Lake County Jail, John Tavo Leota went home a free man last week.
But his release - granted nearly four months early because of good behavior - has again raised the ire of the parents of Malik Smith, who died after Leota punched him in the face on March 18, 1989."That's sinful!" said Smith's father, Kris Keiser, when he was informed of the release. "That's nothing more than a slap on the wrist."
Keiser, a Hollywood producer, said he feels he has been victimized twice. First when his son was killed and again when a jury convicted Leota of a lesser charge of negligent homicide. He was originally charged with second-degree murder.
He said Leota's early release only makes it more difficult for him and other members of the victim's family. "But no matter what term he would have served, it wouldn't have brought my son back," he said.
Leota punched Smith, 18, in the face after a dispute that arose at Club 35, a West Valley dance club. Smith fell backward to the floor and struck his head. He died two days later of brain damage.
Leota began serving his one-year sentence on Jan. 5. He was released from the jail on Sept. 11 after serving 249 days. State statutes indicate that inmates can receive up to 10 days credit for good behavior for every 30 days they serve.
Jail officials told the Deseret News that Leota earned most of his good behavior credit by working as a trustee in the kitchen of the jail. He also received credit for time served in jail immediately following his arrest.
Paul Schwenke, Leota's attorney, said his client served his sentence, paid his debt to society and should be allowed to continue on with his life.
"I think he finally got a fair shake after a long trial and incarceration," he said. Keiser and Smith's mother, actress Beverly Todd, were outraged when a jury refused to convict Leota of murder and instead found him guilty of negligent homicide, a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail. They called a press conference to decry the "miscarriage of justice perpetrated on our son."
In the weeks that followed, dozens of friends and associates directed a letter-writing campaign aimed at the judge in Salt Lake newspapers. The authors threatened to spread the word that Utah is a dangerous place, while others said the issue was a case of racism.
Salt Lake's Polynesian community protested the letter-writing campaign and what they said were the dangers of allowing people in prominent positions to influence the state's judicial system.
"These Hollywood blacks are racists who would like to see a Polynesian treated differently and perhaps more severely than others under our laws," Schwenke said in a January press conference.
Keiser and Todd solicited the help of state Rep. Joanne Milner, D-Salt Lake, to draft a bill that would make negligent homicide resulting from assault a third-degree felony. Milner said the bill has received favorable support from an interim committee and will be presented before the Legislature in the upcoming session for a vote.
She said the bill has been criticized as a being simply a reaction to pressure from Smith's family but insists that it did not come about as the result of one case. She said there are gaps in the homicide statute that need to be addressed to combat violence that leads to death.
"We're not just targeting John Leota," she said. "We live in an aggressive society, and we can't permit (such an incident) to happen again."
In January, the State Office of Victims Reparations asked the court to order Leota to reimburse the agency more than $40,000 it paid to Smith's family. However, Schwenke said Judge Homer Wilkinson agreed with him that the amount was "outrageous and unreasonable" and ordered Leota to pay only $5,889 in restitution for expenses related to Smith's funeral and medical costs.