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LAPD to review detectives' work in case of wrongly convicted man

September 25, 2012 |  2:17 pm

The Los Angeles Police Department is examining the work of two homicide detectives following a judge's decision to vacate the murder conviction of a man they had accused of the crime.

On Monday, John Edward Smith, 37, walked out of prison a free man after spending 19 years of a life sentence behind bars for a fatal shooting in 1993.

Smith, a former gang member, always maintained his innocence, but his claims were ignored until three years ago when an advocacy group for the wrongly convicted took up his case and contacted the lone witness who identified Smith as the shooter. The witness recanted his testimony, saying the LAPD detectives interviewing him had pressured him to finger Smith.

In reaching her decision, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg found Smith's conviction was based almost entirely on the coerced, perjured testimony.

On Tuesday, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he had appointed one of his senior advisers, Gerald Chaleff, to investigate the claims of coercion by police in this case. "It is something we will look into very closely," Beck said in a brief interview. "Obviously, it is troubling when the justice system overturns itself."

Chaleff and Beck said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the police work in Smith's case. Chaleff declined to offer a timetable for his investigation. Beck said both of the detectives have retired from the department. 

In police and court records, the lead investigator in the case is identified as Charles Block. In a department roster from 1993, Block is listed as having the rank of police officer, but in documents from the murder investigation he is listed as a detective. Michael Depasquale, a detective, is also named in the police records, although his exact role in the investigation is unknown.

Attempts to reach both men for comment were not successful.

[Updated at 4:40 p.m., Sept. 25: When contacted, Depasquale said he recalled being involved in the interview of the witness and denied any coercion was used.

"It's not the way it happened," he said. He declined to discuss the case further, citing the likelihood that Smith would file a civil lawsuit over his incarceration.]

Beck and Chaleff said the department's inquiry may include a review of other cases worked by Block and Depasquale.

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— Joel Rubin at LAPD headquarters

[UPDATE] When contacted, Depasquale said he recalled being involved in the interview of the witness and denied any coercion was used. “It’s not the way it happened,” he said. He declined to discuss the case further, citing the likelihood that Smith would file a civil lawsuit over his incarceration.

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