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Chris Brown in court, applauds when ex-gang member exonerated

September 25, 2012 | 10:43 am

He was only 4 years old when John Edward Smith was arrested in a Los Angeles shooting homicide. But R&B singer Chris Brown was in the courtroom Monday when the former gang member was exonerated after serving 19 years of a life term for murder.

Brown sat five feet away as L.A. County Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg recounted the wrongful conviction. When the judge announced she was freeing Smith, Brown applauded along with Smith's relatives.

Brown was in court for a long-scheduled probation hearing. 

Smith walked out of jail Monday night a free man 19 years after being sentenced.

"I had days when I was really frustrated, but I knew I couldn't stop," Smith said of his bid for release in a phone interview minutes afterward.

During 19 years behind bars, Smith, a 37-year-old former gang member, adamantly maintained his innocence in the drive-by shooting, insisting that he was miles away at his grandmother's house at the time of the crime.

His claims were ignored until three years ago, when a fledgling wrongful convictions group, Innocence Matters, took his case and identified problems with the testimony of the lone witness to identify him as the killer.

The witness subsequently recanted and at a brief and raucous hearing Monday afternoon, Schnegg vacated his conviction because she said the 1995 verdict rested almost entirely on perjured testimony.

The judge's ruling came after the district attorney's office completed its own yearlong investigation and determined that the witness, a high school student injured in the shooting, had lied on the stand.

That teenager, Landu Mvuemba, told Smith's lawyers that LAPD detectives had pressured him into the identification and that he had tried on a number of occasions over the years to alert authorities about his false statements.

The killing was a skirmish in a bloody war between gangs associated with the Crips and Bloods in the Mid-City neighborhood. On the morning of Sept. 9, 1993, two neighborhood teenagers went to look at the scene where a gang shooting had occurred the previous night.

As they neared, a car approached and an occupant inside opened fire on them, killing one and injuring Mvuemba, then 16 years old. Mvuemba became the key to the police case against Smith, a Bloods associate who lived nearby.

He said he had seen the gunman's face for a split second from a distance of 18 feet and was questioned repeatedly by police. At the trial, Mvuemba identified Smith as the gunman.

Smith offered the jury an alibi: He was with a girlfriend and two others at his grandmother's house nearly three miles away.

But the jury believed Mvuemba, convicting Smith of murder and attempted murder after three hours of deliberations. He was given two life sentences.

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-- Harriet Ryan

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