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L.A. gang member to be exonerated of murder
Question of the Day
LOS ANGELES — Prosecutors are going to court Friday to seek dismissal of charges against a former gang member convicted of a drive-by murder in a gang infested neighborhood of Los Angeles 19 years ago.
John Edward Smith, who was 18 when he went to prison, was due in court with his lawyers. Sources in the district attorney’s office told the Associated Press that they expect his case against the now 38-year-old Smith to be dismissed.
Smith admitted he was a gang member at the time of the 1993 shooting that killed one man and injured another, but he maintained he was not involved in the shooting and was not present in the area when it happened. He was quickly convicted of murder and attempted murder.
Smith’s exoneration was pursued by Innocence Matters, a Torrance, Calif., public interest law firm. Attorney Deirdre O'Connor, who heads the group, said the sole witness whose testimony convicted Smith recently admitted he had lied at the trial. The witness was the shooting victim who survived.
O’Connor, who said her innocence project was formed because of her strong belief in Smith’s case, said both Smith and his accuser, Landu Mvuemba, were subjected to repeated polygraph tests confirming Smith’s claim of innocence.
“Within the first two minutes of the interview, Mvuemba recanted,” O'Connor wrote. She said the witness who was 16 at the time of the shooting, told them: “The police told me they knew who did it.”
He said they pointed to Smith, whom he had known in elementary school and told him that other witnesses had identified Smith as the shooter. He said he was also shown a picture of his friend, DeAnthony Williams, who died in the shooting and he said, “I felt a lot of pressure to go along with it.”
Both men had been on the street examining the scene of another shooting the night before when a car pulled up and someone opened fire.
Mvuemba said he tried three times to tell authorities the truth, that he didn’t see enough to testify, but his pleas were ignored.
“Mvuemba knew it was wrong to identify Mr. Smith as the man who shot him,” the defense motion said. “But when he saw his deceased friend’s crying mother in the courtroom he felt as if he had no other choice.”
O'Connor also said Smith’s trial was undermined by ineffective assistance of attorneys who failed to investigate the case properly both at trial and on appeal. She said lawyers and police often take “short cuts” in gang cases.
“Mr. Smith was not the shooter,” the motion said. “He was not at the scene of the crime.”
Smith steadfastly maintained that he was at the home of his grandmother on Sept. 9, 1993, and knew nothing about the crime until his mother called to tell him about it.
While many prisoners have been exonerated in recent years through innocence projects, gang cases are among the most difficult, according to Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor who works with that university’s innocence project.
“Gang members are easy targets,” she said. “They are the usual suspects. This is a story we hear repeatedly. Witnesses say what they think authorities want to hear. It’s terrifying to see people wrongly convicted but also to see the carnage on our streets. Police react to that carnage.”
O'Connor credited the district attorney’s office with working to get the truth once they became aware of the case.
By Tom Harris and Madhav Khandekar
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