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Prison officer Smith mourned

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Family members comfort each other as the flag-draped casket of correctional officer Justin Smith is brought into the Fine Arts Center at Elizabeth City State University for Smith's funeral, Sunday.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The family, friends and colleagues of Justin Smith gathered in mourning Sunday as North Carolina honored the second correctional officer slain at Pasquotank Correctional Institution earlier this month.

They also celebrated him for setting a powerful example despite his few years on Earth.

Correctional officers and other law enforcement from across the country accorded state honors to Smith, only 35 years old, at the Fine Arts Center at Elizabeth City State University. A horse-drawn caisson escorted his remains to the service, passing by dozens of saluting officers. 

It was a solemn but tragically familiar scene, as Smith's service followed a similar funeral for Veronica Darden, the other prison employee killed during an escape attempt at PCI on Oct. 12.

It was hard for Smith's friend and mentor, PCI Special Operations Sgt. Curtis Casper, to find the words for Sunday's service. But he told the audience that Smith had shown impressive drive and professionalism.

He also recalled a frank and somewhat humorous conversation they had.

“I remember one day we were in the gatehouse … and we started talking about goals,” Casper said. “You know what he told me? He said, 'Sarge, you know what my goal is? I want your job.'”

Far from offended, Casper said he was pleased that someone saw the value of his work – “I must have done something right as a supervisor.” He recounted that he supported Smith's professional development, and found him to always be a reliable and level-headed employee.

Casper also explained Smith should inspire others, both professionally and personally.

“He was achieving goals that he set for himself, and I'm just glad that I was able to be there to try to help him with that,” Casper said. “Justin was more than a correctional officer; he went above and beyond the call of duty that day, and every day. He went above and beyond as a human being.”

PCI Administrator Felix Taylor also praised Smith as a model employee who was respectful and always pleasant.

North Carolina's Director of Prisons, Kenneth Lassiter, also spoke Sunday, explaining to the family he knows where true heroes are found.

“I know a few heroes, and they work at Pasquotank Correctional, and your son was one of those heroes,” he said. He described Smith as among those who get up every day to handle “those that society has set aside.”

He also pledged the state would continue to stand by them as they handle his loss.

Officiating Sunday was Bishop David Hill. He acknowledged that Smith's death seemed “senseless” and even unbearably painful. But he urged the gathering to remember “there is no sorrow on Earth that Heaven cannot heal.”

He also likened the tragedy at PCI to the events of Matthew 8:23. In that biblical chapter and verse, Jesus calmed a storm that terrified his disciples, and questioned their lack of faith.

Hill told the audience to keep its faith strong.

“See we've done been through the storm, and peace is here, if you want it,” Hill said. “If we just hold on a little while … if we just stand our ground, God will bring us through the storm, and he will bring peace to our lives again.”

According to the service's program, Smith was born in New York City to Melanie and John Mathewson. Even after the family relocated to Elizabeth City, he maintained friendships in New York, it notes.

The program also explained Smith had a love of animals, working in his youth as a caretaker at the Bronx Zoo, and that he will be remembered for an “infectious smile” and “ability to light up a room.”

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