The Berkeley man charged with murdering a 19-year-old Cal student just out for a walk on Dwight Way nearly two years ago is slated to be sentenced Monday to 25 years in prison as part of a recent plea deal in the case.
Tony Lorenzo Walker, then 60 years old, fired a single bullet into the back of Seth Smith’s head, killing him instantly. It took more than 30 minutes for anyone to discover Smith’s body. A man walking his dog found him sprawled on his back on the sidewalk near a bus stop bench on Dwight near Acton Street.
The teenager, who was entering his third and final year at Cal, had nearly completed his studies as a double major in economics and history. He had no known enemies or outstanding disputes, police have said. Detectives found no evidence that anything was taken from Smith when he was killed, which ruled out robbery as a possible motive.
Until now, Walker’s motive for the fatal shooting on June 15, 2020, has been shrouded in mystery. That is set to change Monday in court, however: As part of his plea deal, Walker has agreed to make a formal statement, called an allocution, to explain what he did.
This type of statement is rare in Alameda County — court staff said they could think of no other recent example of it — so it remains to be seen what might come to light during Monday’s sentencing hearing.
“At least this way we know he’s off the streets. He can’t hurt anyone else for a window of time,” Michelle Rode-Smith, Seth Smith’s mother, told Berkeleyside this week. “You never know what a jury will look at. It’s very hard to predict.”
Earlier this month, during a brief hearing May 2 before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Yolanda Northridge, Walker had entered a no-contest plea to voluntary manslaughter. He also admitted that he had shot Smith, who was identified by the court as a “particularly vulnerable” victim.
That afternoon, Northridge accepted Walker’s plea and found him guilty of killing Smith. Other charges in the case were dismissed or stricken as part of the negotiated deal.
Berkeleyside monitored the hearing via a remote audio feed set up by the court due to restricted courthouse access during the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, Walker is scheduled to be sentenced Monday morning, at the René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland, to 25 years in state prison.
Under the terms of the deal, Walker must serve 85% of his time before he is considered for parole. He has been in custody without bail since his arrest in August 2020 and will get credit for the time he has served.
As part of the agreement, Walker gave up his right to a jury trial along with his appellate rights.
The evidence in the Seth Smith murder case
During a four-day hearing in the months after Smith’s killing, in which a judge ultimately ordered Walker to stand trial, Walker’s defense attorney argued that the evidence against his client was insufficient and circumstantial: No one saw the killing. No one saw the killer flee. And police found no DNA linking Walker to the shooting.
For more on the evidence in the case, read Berkeleyside’s exclusive coverage of the 2020 hearing
The prosecution’s case, as presented during the hearing, relied heavily on the testimony of a friend of Walker’s who said he’d bought Walker ammunition at a gun shop, and that Walker later confessed that he had killed someone.
Walker also showed the friend a .40-caliber Glock 22 firearm, according to court testimony, which police said was the same model as the murder weapon. That weapon was never recovered.
Police said they did find photos of the Glock on Walker’s cellphone, and a gun-cleaning kit in his Dwight Way home.
Police testified that Walker’s YouTube history, which was otherwise dominated by “hundreds and hundreds of music videos,” included 15 videos about gun handling, cleaning and shooting in the days before and after Smith’s killing.
And Walker’s web browser history included articles about the fatal shooting, police said, as well as the $50,000 reward offered to help solve the case.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Walker repeatedly searched online for breaking news in Berkeley, police testified: As he passed the time, he texted a friend that he was “Still waitin’ on da news,” adding: “I wanna see it.”
Walker was on probation at the time of the killing
In addition to the murder charge, Walker had also been facing a separate allegation of felony probation violation since his arrest in 2020. On May 2, that case was also dropped as part of the plea deal.
And Walker’s status as a probationer, along with the specific terms of his probation — which allowed police to search him and his apartment to determine whether he was complying with the terms of his release from custody — played a key role in helping crack the case, police have said.
Shortly after Smith was killed, the homicide unit got a tip advising them to look into Walker, who lived a few hundred feet from where Smith was killed and had a significant criminal history dating back to at least 1982, according to court records.
Detectives then conducted two probation searches on Walker, which they said ultimately led to the discovery of pertinent evidence and the filing of murder charges. (People on probation are sometimes required to consent to searches as a condition of release.)
By a coincidence of timing, the Berkeley City Council is expected to consider revisions to its parole and probation search policy this coming Tuesday night.
Council adopted the policy in early 2021 as part of a package of reforms aimed to reduce widespread racial disparities in law enforcement contacts.
As it stands, Berkeley’s current policy limits parole and probation searches by BPD and is much narrower in scope than state law.
The proposed revisions, put forward by council members Lori Droste and Terry Taplin, would give police more latitude to conduct certain searches.
The agenda item was prompted, in part, by concerns about the current policy’s potential ramifications for investigations into serious crimes like Walker’s: The probation searches that helped solve the homicide case, while legal in California, are now prohibited in Berkeley, according to BPD.
Some community members, however, have spoken against the council item at recent Police Accountability Board (PAB) meetings and in other public forums.
The board voted unanimously to urge council to stick with the existing search policy, which came about through an 18-month process spearheaded by the Police Review Commission — the PAB’s predecessor — with input from police.
The PAB said California is one of only nine states in the nation to allow these searches and that they do not reduce recidivism. And racial disparities continue to be a concern.
“Probationers and parolees in California are disproportionately people of color, with 71% of Alameda County probationers either Black or Latinx people,” the board wrote in a letter to council. “They are therefore disproportionately subject to these searches.”
On Thursday, when Councilmember Taplin learned of the Walker plea deal, he recalled to Berkeleyside how Seth Smith’s killing had deeply shocked the West Berkeley community.
“I hope that BPD’s successful investigation will bring some sense of security to his neighbors and loved ones,” he said. “This should never have happened.”
TUNE IN NEXT WEEK: Berkeleyside will cover Monday’s court hearing and Tuesday’s council meeting
Taplin also said he wants to be sure the city doesn’t inadvertently undermine parole and probation programs, which he said he sees as important tools for reducing mass incarceration.
“If searches are authorized as a condition of release, we must question what we gain from being one of few jurisdictions in an urban core where permitted searches are restricted,” Taplin said. “We should not compromise Berkeleyans’ safety. Our policies must reflect and be informed by the facts on the ground, sad and disturbing as they may be.”