John Edwards Smith: Innocent Man Freed After 19 Years in Prison

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 25, 2012

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John Edward Smith has finally been released, after spending 19 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Smith, who was 19 years old at the time of the murder, told police that he had been at his grandmother’s house during the hours when the shooting took place.

He was convicted largely on the testimony of the sole eye witness, who was shot but survived. The prosecutors now believe that the eyewitness, Landu Mvuemba, was lying when he testified that Smith had been the shooter.

In 1993, John Edward Smith admitted he was a gang member. However, he adamantly denied any involvement in the murder, and has maintained his innocence to this day.

The shooting occurred on the morning of September 9, 1993, near same location where a gang related shooting occurred the night before. Landu Mvuemba was walking there with his friend DeAnthony Williams that morning, when he heard gunfire. Mvuemba was shot, but survived. DeAnthony Williams was killed.

A full two months later, Landu Mvuemba picked Smith out of a six-pack photo line-up, but only after apparent urging by detectives. The detectives had already decided the shooting had been carried out by a Rollin 20s game member in retaliation for an earlier shooting. They told Mvuemba that other witnesses had identified Smith.

In 2010, Mvuemba met with a group called Innocence Matters, a California based non-profit organization dedicated to preventing the wrongful conviction of innocent people. Deirdre O’Connor, the head of the group and Smith’s lawyer, said that when Mvuemba first walked in to meet the group he immediately acknowledged that he had lied on the stand. He had fully recanted his story within two minutes of beginning the interview.

According to a defense motion, Mvuemba said the police told him they already knew who had committed the shooting. In his declaration, he said “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.”

Mvuemba says that he told police several times that he hadn’t seen who carried out the shooting well enough to identify Smith, but the police didn’t care. Ultimately, Mvuemba went ahead and gave the false testimony after arriving in court and seeing his dead friend’s mother crying in the court room.

O’Connor points out that gang members are easy targets for police and prosecutors. She also says that Smith’s original defense lawyers didn’t assist him effectively by failing to investigate properly at trial and on appeal.

Smith, now 37 years old, is looking forward to getting a job and starting a new life. His grandmother, 79-year-old Laura Neal, who raised him, attended court to hear Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg announce her decision.

When Schnegg told the crowded courtroom Smith would be freed, the entire room erupted into cheers and shouts of joy. Schnegg thanked the crowd for their “enthusiasm,” and thanked the lawyers from both sides for an opportunity to “do justice.”

“I always knew he didn’t do it,” Neal told reporters after hearing the judge’s decision. “I’m happy and sad. But the part of me that was in there with him — I’m free now too.”

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