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Summer intern's letter key to ex-gang member's exoneration

September 25, 2012 | 11:22 am

A summer intern’s long shot letter was a turning point in John Edward Smith’s road to freedom.

The Los Angeles man was exonerated Monday after 19 years in prison for a gang murder he had always insisted he did not commit. Smith’s case was taken up in December 2009 by a start-up wrongful convictions group, Innocence Matters, staffed by student interns and volunteers.

One of those interns, Jessica Farris, a Drexel University law student, sent a letter to the lone witness to identify Smith as the killer, asking for a meeting to discuss the case.

Landu Mvuemba had been a 16-year-old high school student when he was injured in the 1993 drive-by shooting, but Farris’ letter reached him in a state prison where he was serving a long sentence for rape.

Mvuemba agreed to the meeting in a short note written on the back of Farris’ original letter. At that July 2010 meeting, Farris and Innocence Matters founder, veteran criminal defense lawyer Deirdre O’Connor, asked a simple question: “What can you tell us about the John Smith case?”

"I didn't see anything," Mvuemba replied, according to a habeas corpus brief filed by Innocence Matters. He went on to tell Farris and O’Connor police had pressured him into identifying Smith and detailing numerous occasions where he had tried to alert authorities to his false statements against Smith.

"The cops laid out the whole storyline, telling me who did it and how. They told me other witnesses said John Smith did it,” Mvuemba told them.

Smith was freed Monday night after Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg vacated his conviction. The judge said the guilty verdict was based almost entirely on perjured testimony.


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-- Harriet Ryan