A Life Beyond the Grief : Two years ago, Beverly Todd’s only son was beaten to death. ‘You never get over it,’ she says. ‘You just learn to function.’
In the two years since the life of her only child was taken, Beverly Todd has mastered all the sad little strategies of survival.
Todd’s son, Malik Smith, was 18 when, without provocation, he was punched, kicked and left brain dead on the floor of a dance club outside Salt Lake City, where he had gone to ski. Since then, Todd has learned how to look at another person’s child without bursting into tears. And when she glimpses someone who reminds her too much of Malik, she looks quickly away. “You learn how to skip over it,” the actress says of such consciously aborted encounters. “It’s almost like Pac-Man. You don’t want to get eaten.”
In many ways, Todd is doing fine. She’s lost the 20 pounds she put on the year after Malik died, a period in which her grief was compounded by the ordeal of his killer’s trial. John Leota, who was 18 when he took lethal exception to Malik’s skill on the dance floor, was originally charged with second-degree murder but was ultimately convicted of misdemeanor homicide. He is out of jail, after serving eight months.
“A misdemeanor!” Todd says, with disbelief. “That’s for throwing paper on the sidewalk or for spitting, that’s not for taking someone’s life.” But instead of being disabled by rage or indignation, she has been working to have the homicide laws of Utah toughened.
And she’s doing well professionally. Best known for supporting roles in “Moving,” “Clara’s Heart” and “Lean on Me,” she recently co-produced a successful TV special on the history of black humor in America, called “A Laugh, A Tear” (friend Whoopi Goldberg was the producer). She is currently co-producing a new project for HBO, a movie on the life of Don Jackson, the former police sergeant whose violent arrest by Long Beach police was secretly videotaped as part of a police-brutality sting operation. And she continues to act. Wednesday night she will appear as a passionate defense attorney in an episode of ABC’s “Equal Justice.”
But Wednesday is also the second anniversary of Malik’s death, and anniversaries are hard. Not meaning to be hurtful, people sometimes ask Todd if she’s over the tragedy yet. “They should understand you never get over it,” she says. “You just learn to function.” Not always perfectly, she adds. A month ago, she says, she had the worst audition of her life. “I went up,” she says, using the theatrical term for losing control.
“My emotional center hasn’t returned. I’m either calm or I’m frantic. I have no middle yet.” But things are better, she says. “All last year I was numb. This year, I’m conscious.”
The last time Todd spoke to Malik, the Santa Monica College freshman was going off to ski as he did every spring break. Todd, who lives in View Park, was staying with friends in New York while promoting “Lean on Me.” Malik was calling from Los Angeles, where he was with his dad, TV and film producer Kris Keiser, who is Todd’s ex-husband. (Keiser’s real name is Keiser Richard Smith. He also was devastated by Malik’s death and has been active in trying to bring about legal reform in Utah, the actress says.)
Malik was fretting about the cost of his upcoming vacation. And, to Todd’s eternal relief, as she plays and replays that phone call in memory, she says the right thing. “I said, ‘Malik, you know you’ve got more than enough, but if you run out, just call me and I’ll send you something.’ He said, ‘OK, mom.’ That was our last conversation. Thank God, I wasn’t fussing at him.”
It also comforts her to know that things were going well for Malik when he died. Family friend Vidal Sassoon, whose four children grew up with Malik, remembers him as a bright, inquisitive, even sagacious young man. But, according to his mother, Malik had had a rough patch in adolescence, not with drugs or the law but with his self-image.
“He didn’t feel very good about himself, for a very long time,” she says. One problem was the universal adolescent one of feeling unattractive. What teen-ager isn’t secretly convinced he looks like the Elephant Man? Malik had fallen as a child and needed 10 stitches to close a deep cut over his right eye. The other kids called him Frankenstein. And then there was school. Todd has always been interested in education, involved, as she typically is, in an active way. When Malik was 2 and the family lived in New York City, Todd and a friend had started their own Montessori school, called Sunshine Circle.
In Los Angeles, Malik had been doing well in private school. But he decided he wanted to go to public school, like most of his peers. It was at Fairfax High that his grades began to skid. In public school, with its large classes and overburdened teachers, “if you could swim upstream, fine,” Todd says. “If not, you just got knocked by the rocks, and he had a really hard time.”
But when Malik was a junior, his principal suggested the continuation program at Fairfax, and it turned out to be a godsend. Malik stopped ditching and began to blossom. He did so well he was chosen for a special enrichment program at USC. And there he made the academic decathlon team. Todd treasures his last report card: all A’s and B’s and Excellents for work habits. He had girlfriends. He felt good.
“Part of what was bothering him was his lack of achievement in school,” Todd says, “and once he was able to do that again, it seemed to snowball and have an effect on everything. He was empowered. I thank God for all of that. He had come full circle, so at least when he left here, he was complete.”
Malik was a terrific dancer, and that was apparently what provoked the young man who killed him. While on vacation, Malik and a friend had gone with the friend’s cousin to a teen-age dance club (no alcohol) in suburban Salt Lake City. Malik had stayed behind when his companions left to get something to eat. He stayed because the deejay finally played a song he especially liked, and he got up and danced, all by himself. He was having fun. Maybe he was showing off a little, or maybe he was just dancing the way good dancers from Los Angeles do. The 800-page transcript of Leota’s trial doesn’t answer all the questions it raises. Malik may or may not have beckoned girlfriends of Leota to join him.
What is clear is that Leota, who had a long history of trouble with the law, was angry. He’d fought with two other young men that same night in Club 35. But, for whatever reason, Malik was the one who really infuriated him. A witness said Malik was backing away when Leota hit him so hard that Malik was lifted six inches off the ground. Malik’s head struck something as he fell. Then Leota, who testified that he had not intended to kill Malik, kicked him in the head. When Todd got the phone call that every parent fears most, Malik was only being kept alive by machines. He died two days later, on March 20, 1989.
The next months were a sustained nightmare. Todd is convinced Malik was denied real justice in Utah because he was an outsider in a closed community, unlike Leota, who is a member of the dominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I really feel that we didn’t get fairness in Utah,” says Todd, who points to Leota’s conviction on a misdemeanor charge and his one-year sentence as evidence of pro-Mormon bias in the Utah courtroom.
There was also racial tension throughout the trial, she says. Leota is of Tongan ancestry. After friends of Todd and Keiser, including Whoopi Goldberg, wrote to the judge, protesting Leota’s conviction on a misdemeanor, members of the Polynesian community in Utah held a press conference and described Todd and her friends as “wealthy Hollywood blacks” who were trying to deny Leota justice by putting pressure on the judge. A Polynesian attorney told the press: “We, the Polynesian community and citizens of Utah, say to these celebrities, Utah is a law-abiding state. We demand you let the judicial process go forward. We do not want the legal process to be influenced in any way.”
Todd says that, on the contrary, she and her ex-husband consciously kept a low profile throughout the trial. “You get very fearful about causing too much of a stir in terms of making it a mistrial or doing something else that’s going to jeopardize the outcome,” she says. “You want everything to turn out right so that you get justice. And so when they started complaining about these people coming up from Hollywood that were from the NAACP, we asked them not to come back because we didn’t want to cloud the issues or to cover up what was the real issue, which was the murder.”
The trial was one emotional blow after another, Todd says. She and Keiser had been told that they should not bring Malik’s body home for burial because it might be needed during the trial. So his remains were in cold storage in Utah for seven months. And every day, as she sat in the courtroom, she had a growing sense that the world didn’t really care much about the death of one more African-American child.
Todd says the bitterness of that period was eased somewhat by the support she received from some Utah residents, most notably state legislator Joanne R. Milner. Milner sponsored a bill that would toughen Utah’s laws dealing with homicide by assault. So far, the bill has not got out of committee, but Todd is still hopeful. She would also like to see new laws in Utah that would allow the records of violent juveniles to be admitted in court under certain circumstances (Leota’s record was not admissible).
So Todd is coming back, although her life has been irrevocably changed.
She and Keiser established a scholarship in Malik’s name, to be awarded each year at the annual fund-raiser for the Kwanza Foundation, a charitable organization founded by a group of African-American actresses. Todd gave Malik’s king-sized water bed to one of his best friends and has lessened the emotional heat of his old room by turning it into an office. “It’s one of the most comfortable rooms in the house,” she says. And Todd spends as much time as she can with teen-agers, especially minority youngsters, often screening “Lean on Me” and reminding them that their young lives are full of options.
And she wishes she would stop aching.
“Because your child is dead, doesn’t mean that you stop being a parent. You still think about your kid. It’s just that the thoughts have no place to go.”