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After 19 years in jail, ex-gang member exonerated, freed

September 25, 2012 |  6:55 am

A Los Angeles man stepped out of jail Monday night a free man 19 years after being sentenced to a life term for murder.

"I had days when I was really frustrated, but I knew I couldn't stop," John Edward Smith  said of his bid for release in a phone interview minutes after he walked out a free man. He said he was most dazed by the lights of downtown Los Angeles and Staples Center, and was looking forward to going home and hugging his grandmother.

Smith said he was putting the details of his case out of his mind and focusing on the small steps to rebuild a life on the outside, like getting a driver's license.

"I'm not looking in the rear-view mirror," he said. "I'm here now."

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 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 him as the killer. The man subsequently recanted and at a brief and raucous hearing Monday afternoon, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge vacated his conviction.

Smith's 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, dressed in a blue jumpsuit, gave a slight smile.

Smith was released around 8:30 Monday evening from a jail in downtown L.A., and was greeted by a phalanx of camera crews and microphones.

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 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.

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 Los Angeles 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 come to his school two months after the shooting, handcuffed him and brought him to a police station, where they told him Smith had already been identified as the gunman. They wanted him to do the same.

"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 polygraph tests. Both passed.

In court papers, Smith's lawyers have suggested that another neighborhood man, Roy Clarke, was the gunman. 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 women 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 the wrongful conviction. When the judge announced that she was freeing Smith, Brown applauded along with Smith's relatives.


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-- Harriet Ryan