It started as an argument in a convenience store parking lot. It escalated into an arrest. And with a guilty verdict, it could put a pregnant woman behind bars for 30 years.
On January 21, 2021, Phoenix resident Donjané Smith, then 25 years old, pulled a machete from her car while arguing with her partner, James Runnels.
Security camera footage on the scene caught much of the exchange, including Runnels spitting on Smith, and then later reaching out and making contact with the knife. When police arrived at the scene, Runnels had a small cut on his hand that did not require medical attention.
After both parties were interviewed, Smith was arrested.
“Are you kidding me?” Smith asked. “This cannot be happening.”
“He was trying to harm me,” Smith told her arresting officer, according to body camera footage, which appears in an episode of Accused: Guilty or Innocent? dedicated to the case. The episode aired on October 26, 2023. [Stream episodes of Accused: Guilty or Innocent? in the A&E app.]
Although Runnels did not wish to press charges, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office charged Smith with two counts of aggravated assault, with each charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 15.
According to Smith’s defense attorney, Robert J. Campos, hers was an open-and-shut example of self-defense.
“This case never ever should’ve been prosecuted,” Campos tells A&E True Crime. “And they knew it.”
Before the Machete Arrest
Smith moved to Phoenix from Fresno, California several years before her legal troubles began. She met Runnels soon thereafter.
Their first run-in was at Scores, a nightclub in downtown Phoenix. She and Runnels briefly chatted at the bar before parting ways without exchanging contact information. The next day they ran into each other again, this time in the streets of North Phoenix.
“It was funny. Such a coincidence,” Smith tells A&E True Crime. “Like it was God’s plan.”
“He was nice. Calm,” Smith continues. “Respectful. Independent. And he was in school.”
The couple began dating shortly thereafter.
Around that same time, Smith came into possession of her machete. It was gifted to her from her brother’s friend, who wanted to make sure she had something to protect herself when coming home late at night from work. Smith worked as a caregiver at a group home, and often returned in the early hours of the morning.
“He told me he got it on sale, at a hardware store. They were two for $5. I said, ‘Where would I keep this big old machete?’ But it fit perfectly in the car: next to my car seat, where I buckle up,” she says. “I carried it for five years, and never used it.”
Then came their argument. According to Smith, Runnels had been in an on-again, off-again relationship with another woman, which was generating tension in their own relationship.
They’d been on the way to a tattoo parlor to get matching tattoos when their fight broke out.
After the Arrest
After Smith was arrested, the prosecution offered her a plea deal to a lesser felony charge that would’ve spared her prison time.
According to Campos, the government was only willing to offer that plea deal if it she agreed to it before the defense had an opportunity to review the evidence (the “discovery”), which was going to be brought against the accused at trial.
“I told them to go jump in a lake,” says Campos. “There was no way I was going to have my client plea to anything before seeing that. It’s common sense.”
Before trial, the alleged victim Runnels called Campos and told him he wanted to testify on Smith’s behalf, and that he had been discouraged by the prosecution from reaching out directly. Campos recorded those conversations.
“It pisses me off,” Campos says, given the overwhelming evidence of Smith’s innocence. “They forced a true victim to make a difficult decision: Do I push for my freedom? Because if she’d been convicted, the judge would’ve given her a minimum of five years.”
In a written statement for this story, a spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office said , “There was no unethical behavior in this case… The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office adheres to the highest ethical standards, notwithstanding a defense attorney’s comments to the contrary.”
Smith says that the most stressful part of the ordeal was facing down a potential prison term while pregnant. Runnels was the father.
“They scheduled my trial for October 14,” Smith says, noting that this was almost directly aligned with her due date. After pleading with the judge to postpone, the trial was moved three months forward. October 14, 2022, instead became the day she delivered her baby.
The Final Verdict
At trial, Runnels testified on Smith’s behalf, saying there had been no real threat.
“If she was really trying to get me, she could’ve got me,” Runnels said on the stand. “It’s a big machete.”
Runnels added that Smith acted in her own defense, telling the court, “I was about to beat her up.”
Camera footage further supported the defense’s case. On the strength of the defense’s evidence, Judge Michael Kemp tossed the case out rather than give the jury the opportunity to deliberate on it.
At time of publication, Smith is pregnant with her and Runnels’ second child. The machete remains in police custody. But now, Smith says, she no longer keeps a weapon on hand.
“I keep my faith in God,” Smith says. “I have a child now. I don’t want to be in defense mode.”