A desire to advocate for victims of crime in western North Carolina has brought Chris Smith L’20 full circle to the office that sought justice for his own family.
The framed photo of his mother that sits on his desk inside the Haywood County Courthouse is a daily reminder for Chris Smith L’20 of the resilience of the human spirit.
Taken three decades ago, his mother smiles at the camera, cheek-to-cheek with her only child who would spend his youth playing travel soccer and hit-ting the ski slopes that surround Waynesville, North Carolina, halfway between Asheville and the Tennessee state line.
Today an assistant district attorney serving the far western regions of the state, Smith was the apple of his mother’s eye. To support his interests, she would work year-round, including jobs as a middle school math and science teacher, a dental hygienist over the summer, and evening and weekend shifts at a nearby pancake house.
“It was just me and her for the longest time,” Smith recalls. “She never missed a sporting event and did everything she could to make sure I had everything I could have wanted.
“And then I lost everything.”
A VICTIM OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Amanda Smith Morrow and Michael David Morrow had a rocky relationship even before they married a year before she died. Caught in the middle was Chris, who by fall 2010 had parlayed his soccer talents into a role as a kicker and wide receiver for the Tuscola High School football team.
The last time he saw his mother was shortly before Haywood County’s biggest prep football game of the year between Tuscola and perennial rival Pisgah High School. Later that night, a call to 911 reported a fight taking place between Amanda and Michael.
Sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house and found no one home. Authorities discovered Amanda the following morning on a nearby neighbor’s front porch. They located her estranged husband asleep at a house a short distance away from the crime scene with a recently fired pistol cocked on his mattress.
Smith prefers not to recount details about the overnight hours of Oct. 15, 2010, or even how his mother met Michael. It’s enough to say that court records detail a tragedy like those of 75 other domestic violence murder victims across North Carolina in 2010.
THE PATH FORWARD
Following his mother’s death, Smith moved in with his father and finished his senior year at Tuscola High School, which helped to provide stability for a 17-year-old struggling emotionally in the aftermath of the crime.
Deciding against college, Smith instead enrolled the following fall at NASCAR Technical Institute. He knew almost right away it was a mistake. Returning to Waynesville, Smith took classes at the local community college, and in 2012 moved to East Tennessee State University.
It wasn’t easy. He still sought counseling for a time he describes as “rock bottom.” But he soon found balance through a combination of therapy and faith and what he calls “a good support system.” Grades and focus improved as he studied criminal justice. So did his relationships, notably with his future wife, whom he met on the ETSU campus.
Having people from the community come up to me and tell me how proud my mom would be? That’s even more powerful.
Smith then made plans to attend the murder trial in March 2013. For two weeks, he sat with his maternal grandparents in a pew behind the prosecutor’s table, watching Chief Assistant District Attorney Jeff Jones secure a conviction and life sentence for Michael David Morrow.
As Smith now recalls, a year after the trial, Jones bumped into Smith’s grandmother at a grocery store. He asked how Smith was doing and whether he’d be interested in a summer internship. When his grandmother passed along the suggestion, Smith recognized the opportunity.
EMPATHY AND ADVOCACY
Reid Taylor was an assistant district attorney in Haywood County in 2014 when Smith first walked through the doors for his internship. The ability to absorb feedback from others — a sign of humility, in Taylor’s estimation — is what helped Smith distinguish himself.
“Chris will take criticism, and his first response is never to be defen-sive, but to listen, and then to ask questions,” says Taylor, who quickly became a close mentor to Smith. “There’s a certain amount of patience, too. He takes time to reflect, and that takes self-control.”
Smith’s work and personality left such an impression that when he graduated from East Tennessee State University in late 2015, he was soon offered a full-time position as a domestic violence investigator for the district attorney’s office.
His experience with domestic violence was only part of what would earn Smith the Western North Carolina Crime Victims’ Coalition Special Courage Award, which acknowledges individuals who act bravely to either aid a victim or prevent a victimization.
“Chris is never judgmental and that’s one of those things that you can’t teach someone,” Haywood County District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch explains. “If we have domestic violence victims who want to drop charges and go back to their abuser, a lot of times, what you see is judgment. ‘Why aren’t you leaving? Why are you going back?’ You’ll never get that out of Chris. You can be empathetic but until you’ve been a victim of domestic violence yourself or had someone you loved very much be a victim, you cannot possibly understand.”
Smith stayed only for a short time with the district attorney’s office. His wife was in the middle of graduate studies that took the couple to Missouri for a clinical year at a veterinary hospital. As that came to an end, the couple looked to return home, and Smith set his sights on law school.
He, too, wanted to advocate for victims in a courtroom. Just like his mentors. Just like his friends.
PURSUING A JURIS DOCTOR
Elon Law was eventually part of that plan. Before he moved to Missouri, Smith met Max Pennington l’15, who had been hired to serve as the county’s domestic violence prosecutor. Over occasional drinks and golf on weekends, Pennington learned Smith’s background.
“The first thing that comes to mind is shock,” Pennington says. “Now he’s sitting here and helping me talk to individuals going through various situations. In a lot of ways, this is what attorneys are here for. Help. Assistance. Or in Chris’ case, protection.”
Pennington spoke highly of Elon Law when Smith sought advice on law school. Once in Greensboro, Smith joined the Mock Trial Program, and he completed his residency-in-practice at the Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina, where he worked with attorneys to advocate for youth in violent environments.
Shortly after taking the February 2021 North Carolina Bar Exam, Smith fielded a call from Welch. There might soon be an opening in the Haywood County office. Any interest?
On July 19, 2021, Christopher Smith was sworn in as assistant district attorney assigned to the 43rd Prosecutorial District. He was flanked by his grandparents in a photo published by the local newspaper. His grandmother held the Bible.
“This is a very tough line of work and takes a really special person to do it,” says Jones, who prosecuted the murder case. “There are some really bad folks out there who do really bad things … and someone needs to stand up and hold them accountable. But you need somebody who’s always willing to do the right thing and take the high road. You either know it or you don’t — and Chris knows it.”
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Life is different a decade removed from his loss. Smith and his wife are raising a toddler, and they’re looking to build a home in the nearby mountains, providing their daughter with the same opportunities and the same encouragement Smith felt as a child.
Walk around the modern courthouse in Haywood County and just about everyone gravitates toward the lanky lawyer with the quick smile and a penchant for using “brother” to address friends and colleagues.
On a recent morning, Smith and his legal assistant staffed a table in traffic court where defendants sought reductions in speeding tickets, rescheduled court dates and plea agreements with dismissal of misdemeanor offenses.
Like many young prosecutors, Smith sees a time where he’ll prosecute felony cases before a jury. For now, working in District Court is where he knows he’s making a difference. He’s patient. He watches his colleagues — their techniques, their strategies — and he learns. With folksy banter and a smile, Smith helps others navigate their own legal challenges. And while he’ll tell you that he’s often thanked for his advocacy, it’s not what inspires his work. Inspiration can be found every time he looks at the photo on his office desk.
“Having people from the community come up to me and tell me how proud my mom would be?” Smith says. “That’s even more powerful.”