(Editor’s Note: We recommend you listen to this story.)
Mark Smith was 17 when he shot and killed another teenager. He got the mandatory sentence – life without parole. But that didn’t mean Mark stopped living life.
Twenty years into his incarceration, Mark started corresponding with a straight-laced, Canadian woman named Dawn Dietrich.
They met on the website WriteAPrisoner.com. The website connects prisoners with people on the outside, saying it can help prisoners’ well-being and rehabilitation.
Dawn says she was looking for pen pal options after losing her lifelong pen pal and dear friend. She found Mark’s profile and sent him a message through JPay, a prisoner email service.
“We hit it off within a message," says Dawn. “That was it. It was good.”
Mark says he was on board after the first line.
“The first line in her Jpay to me was, ‘Mark, how are you doing? I’m a Jpay virgin,’" Mark recalls. “I was like O.K. yeah, she’s cool.’”
“Well, go big or go home,” Dawn responds.
Falling in love
Dawn says she told Mark from the start she was not looking for a romantic relationship. She had just gotten out of an abusive marriage.
“You could see and feel that there was an instant connection at a friendship level if nothing else,” says Mark, “but I wasn’t looking for a relationship.”
His mother had just died, and he hoped the correspondence would help him deal with the heartbreak of it.
“It’s always been kind of hard to maintain a relationship in here,” Mark says. “It’s not something that I really wanted to put onto anyone else either. I couldn’t ask anybody to be committed to me, and I’m serving life in prison. That’s not fair to them or the situation.”
But after three months of flirtatious correspondence, they admitted they liked each other. Three months after that, Dawn drove nearly five hours from her home in Kitchener, Ontario to Lakeland Correctional Facility in southern Michigan to meet Mark in person for the first time. They say they were pretty nervous, but that dissipated quickly.
“My nerves kind of left when she was the second person in line before the door opened, and she kind of pushed past the first person,” Mark says, laughing.
That first visit lasted six hours. Dawn says they sat there talking non-stop and smiling like love-struck teenagers. Now – two years later – Mark, 40, and Dawn, 37, are engaged, and she visits him regularly at the correctional facility.
On the weekends, they get 12 hours together. They sit in the visiting room and talk, laugh and tease each other. They’re allowed a hug and kiss at three points during the visit: when they first see each other, when they take a picture together and when she leaves. There are rules about how long a kiss can be.
“They say it shouldn’t be more than 10 seconds, and each officer out there has a different definition of what a kiss is,” Mark says.
They say they don’t bend the rules.
“We have so much fun out there laughing and joking,” says Mark. “I couldn’t risk that for a quick feel or anything like that. It’s not worth it. The time we get to spend together is way more important than that.”
On July 30, 1995, Mark was hanging out by a wooded lot in Flint with three other teens. The victim was one of them; his name was Joseph Carpenter, but they called him Johnny.
“I was friends with the victim,” Mark says. “I went camping with the victim and his family at their cabin Up North."
Mark says the other two people, his co-defendants Harold Cannoy, Jr. and Eric Fellows, were Johnny’s cousins.
Earlier that evening, Cannoy told Fellows that Johnny had snitched on him for his alleged involvement in a drive-by shooting, and it was time to shut Johnny up.
Later, when they were by the lot, Cannoy got a gun from the woods and handed it to Mark. Mark shot Johnny multiple times. Then Cannoy took a knife from Fellows, handed the knife to Mark and said “finish him.”
At least that’s what Mark and Fellows said happened in court, and the court agreed.
In Cannoy’s testimony, he said he had nothing to do with the crime ... that he heard gunshots when he was going to the bathroom in the woods.
At 17, Mark told authorities he had done it because he was afraid of Cannoy and thought Cannoy would hurt him if he didn’t follow through and kill Johnny.
Mark and Cannoy both got life sentences.
“I know what I did was wrong,” Mark says. “I feel so much sorrow and remorse for the victim’s family. I’ve never not taken responsibility for what I did; it’s just been why I did it.”
Dawn says the crime’s main impact for her is the limitations it puts on the relationship because Mark’s in prison. She says the murder doesn’t put her off.
“He made one bad choice, okay?,” she says. “Yes, it was the worst choice. But a person is more than the sum of their actions. ... When I look at Mark, I don’t look at him with judgment. I don’t care what he did as long as he’s learned from it, and I know he has. I know he has goals, he has aspirations, he has a heart as big as the world, and I am so proud of him.”
Though Dawn says she has to deal with some initial judgment from people about her relationship, her family is very supportive. Her parents have traveled across the border with her to visit Mark, and her brothers are working on getting their passports so they can meet him too.
“It’s a complicated situation but it’s – in my opinion – a one of a kind situation,” Mark says. “It’s not something that happens, especially for a person in my position, to be so clear cut. And it is. There’s nobody that I would rather be with. I cannot wait until I am released from here so we can begin building our family. My future is beyond these fences and beyond these walls and with her.”
Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to give juveniles a mandatory sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder. They said it was cruel and unusual punishment. Then in 2016, the court required that all states with that mandatory law apply the ruling retroactively. That meant Michigan had to begin resentencing juvenile lifers. The state has the second largest juvenile lifer population in the country, and they have been slowly working through the cases.
Mark's resentencing date hasn’t been scheduled yet, but the Genesee County prosecutor has weighed in, saying Mark should get life without parole again. It’s entirely possible that could happen, although Dawn and Mark don’t think it will. The minimum sentence he could get is 25 years plus two more years for a gun charge. The maximum sentence he could get is life.
Mark has been in prison for 22 years now. If Mark were released from prison, the soonest he could get out would be in five years. But Mark and Dawn are moving forward anyway. They're planning to get married next year and to have a kid together using a sperm donor. They say when Mark gets out, they will have to live together in Michigan while he is on parole. They think it could take years before he could go to Canada.