Man set free after 19 years in prison; D.A. admits witness lied
A Los Angeles man serving a life sentence for murder was released Monday after prosecutors conceded that their star witness had perjured himself.
During 19 years behind bars, John Edward Smith, 37, a 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 went unheard 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 Smith as the killer. The man subsequently recanted, and at a brief and raucous hearing Monday afternoon, a Superior Court judge vacated Smith's conviction.
His relatives and friends erupted in cheers as Judge Patricia Schnegg, the supervising criminal judge, said she was setting aside the 1995 verdict because Smith’s conviction rested almost entirely on perjured testimony.
“Thank you for your enthusiasm,” Schnegg told the audience as Smith, in a blue jumpsuit, gave a slight smile.
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 murder was a skirmish in a bloody war between gangs associated with the Crips and the Bloods in the Mid-City neighborhood. On the morning of Sept. 9, 1993, two neighborhood teens went to look at the scene of a gang shooting the previous night. As they neared, a car approached and opened fire on them, killing one and injuring Mvuemba, then 16.
Mvuemba became the key to the police case against Smith, a Bloods associate who lived nearby. He said he had seen the shooter’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 shooter.
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 deliberation. He was given two life sentences.
Smith’s family, including his grandmother Laura Neal, firmly believed in his innocence. At one point, his grandparents mortgaged their house to pay an appellate law firm $65,000. They tried to persuade the Innocence Project to take his case and later took to cold-calling lawyers and investigators. Every effort failed until Smith heard about Innocence Matters from a relative.
When he phoned a few days after Christmas in 2009, the founder, veteran criminal defense attorney Deirdre O’Connor, told him that he was too early. The organization hadn’t even filed its incorporation papers yet. But something about Smith’s manner grabbed O’Connor. Guilty clients were often vague and hesitant, perhaps trying to sort out lies, but Smith was straightforward and precise.
“It was effortless for him to answer all of my questions,” she recalled. She took his case.
O’Connor, a former L.A. deputy public defender, and a team of legal interns spent thousands of hours investigating his case. The most important thing they did was track down Mvuemba, according to court filings detailing their work. He was in prison for sexual assault and wanted to talk. Minutes into the first meeting, he blurted out, “I didn’t see anything.”
He said the police had gone to his school two months after the shooting, handcuffed him and taken him to a police station, where they told him Smith had already been identified as the shooter. They wanted his corroboration.
“I felt a lot of pressure to go along with it,” he said.
Mvuemba said he soon regretted it and reported his concerns to LAPD internal affairs twice. He even told the courtroom bailiff as he prepared to take the witness stand, he said. No one did anything, he said.
He and Smith later took separate lie detector tests. Both passed.
In court papers, Smith’s lawyers have suggested that another neighborhood man, Roy Clarke, was the shooter. Clarke, an immigrant from Belize, has been a fugitive for two decades in connection with another gang shooting.
Outside the courthouse, Smith’s grandmother, a frail woman who uses a walker, said she had willed herself to stay alive until he was free.
“There was a part of me that was in there too,” she said of his prison stay. “I am free now.”
In an only-in-L.A. twist, Smith’s exoneration occurred moments before a long-scheduled probation hearing for R&B singer Chris Brown. Brown, who was 4 years old when Smith was arrested, sat about five feet away as the judge recounted Smith's wrongful conviction. When the judge announced that she was freeing Smith, Brown applauded along with Smith’s relatives.
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-- Harriet Ryan