Man to be released after witness recants on 1993 murder [Updated]
A man who has spent 19 years in prison for murder is expected to be ordered freed Friday afternoon after the sole eyewitness, a survivor of the drive-by shooting, recanted his testimony.
John Edward Smith, who was an 18-year-old gang member when he was accused of the murder, was tried and convicted with less than five hours’ testimony and three hours’ deliberation in 1994, and later sentenced to life in prison. Nearly two decades later, when Smith’s new attorneys contacted witness Landu Mvuemba, he recanted within minutes and said police had pressured him at the time to identify Smith.
"I never got a good enough look to ever make an ID of the shooter. Everything happened too fast," Mvuemba, behind bars on a rape conviction, wrote in a declaration. "The cops laid out the whole story line telling me who did it and how. … They even showed me a picture taken of my friend after he died. I felt a lot of pressure to go along with it."
A district attorney’s spokeswoman said prosecutors will not be opposing Smith’s petition for his release, scheduled to be heard before a Superior Court judge Friday afternoon. Smith is represented pro bono by attorneys from Innocence Matters, a nonprofit focusing on wrongful conviction cases. Smith is the group’s first-ever client.
[Updated at 1:28 p.m.: The hearing on Smith's petition for release has been moved to Monday afternoon, according to the L.A. District Atty's office.]
Mvuemba and his friend were walking down the street on the morning of Sept. 9, 1993, near the scene of a gang-related shooting from the previous night, when he heard gunfire. It wasn’t until two months later that he picked Smith out of a photo six-pack, at the urging of detectives who believed a Rollin 20s gang member had fired the shots in retaliation for an earlier shooting.
Mvuemba wrote in the declaration that he tried to take back his identification of Smith at multiple points before trial but went forward with the testimony when he saw his friend's mother in court and felt he couldn't change his story.
Smith’s court-appointed attorney never presented alibi evidence that would have shown that he was miles away at his grandmother’s home with his girlfriend at the time of the shooting, his new attorneys wrote in the petition for release. The original prosecutors on the case also withheld witness statements and other evidence pointing to another man who could have committed the killing, the attorneys wrote.
“In the end, John Smith has spent seventeen years in prison waiting for someone to talk to Landu Mvuemba,” attorney Deirdre O’Connor wrote in the petition.
— Victoria Kim
Photo: Former gang member John Edward Smith, who was convicted of a drive-by murder in Los Angeles 19 years ago, is expected to be released from prison. Credit: Deirdre O'Connor / AP Photo