A man initially charged with murdering his girlfriend will serve less than a year in jail after pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
In 2017, police charged Justin Penn with murder and kidnapping in connection to a car crash on S.C. Highway 22. Penn was the driver and his passenger Shemeria Smith, 19, was killed in the wreck.
Penn, 22, appeared in Horry County Circuit Court on Thursday to plead guilty to reckless homicide.
On May 17, 2017, Smith’s father reported she was being held against her will, Senior Assistant Solicitor Lauree Richardson said. When 911 dispatchers called Smith, she also said she was being kidnapped.
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Witnesses saw Penn driving above the speed limit on Highway 22, and he and Smith were arguing in the car, Richardson said. Penn lost control and wrecked.
However, when phone records were analyzed, they showed Smith asked Penn to visit and the two planned to return to their home state of Alabama, Richardson said.
Smith moved to the Myrtle Beach area about a week before the wreck and there was a disagreement with her father about how long she intended to stay.
“The state was not in a position to go forward on the murder charge,” Richardson said.
Penn faced 10 years in prison on the reckless homicide charge, and the state offered no recommended sentence.
Penn said he wanted to apologize to Smith’s family, but they were not present for Thursday’s hearing. Smith’s father was having surgery and provided a letter for the sentencing.
The crash bothers him every day, Penn said. He added there isn’t a day where he doesn’t think about Smith.
“I honestly wish this was a big dream,” Penn said. “I never saw myself here.”
Penn’s mother, Latonya Hodo, said that her son encouraged Smith to return to school after she dropped out and helped her find a job.
“This is a young lady my son loved,” she said.
Horry County Judge Benjamin Culbertson sentenced Penn to two years of probation and he will receive credit for the 274 days he served in jail. He will be allowed to serve his probation in Alabama. If his probation is revoked, he faces four years in prison.