LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – A Los Angeles man imprisoned for 19 years for a murder he didn’t commit was exonerated and set free from prison on Monday.
Cheers erupted in the courtroom as the judge exonerated John Edward Smith of a drive-by shooting in 1993, NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate NBC4 reported. Late Monday, Smith left Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail.
“I’m just thankful the same system that made the error was able to find the same avenue to get me out,” Smith said to a throng of reporters who met him outside the jail Monday night.
“I’m not bitter at all. That ain’t gonna get me nowhere, you know. I gotta move forward,” he said, according to NBC4.
When asked what he was going to do next, Smith replied: “I’m gonna go home and hug my grandmother.”
Smith, who The Associated Press described as a former gang member, was convicted of killing a man during a 1993 drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. Another man survived and was the single witness to the alleged crime. Two years ago, he recanted the testimony that led to Smith’s 1994 conviction for first-degree murder and attempted murder.
Smith was 18 when he went to prison. He told authorities he was at his grandmother’s house with family when the shooting took place in a gang-infested area.
He said he knew nothing about the crime until his mother called to tell him about it.
The 37-year-old was scheduled to be released on Friday, but the judge was out due to illness. But Smith was all smiles on Monday as Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg released him after nearly two decades behind bars: “Mr. Smith, you are now free.”
The ruling evoked mixed emotions from Smith’s family.
“I’m happy. I’m sad. But the part of me that was in there with him, I’m free now, too,” said Laura Neal, Smith’s grandmother and primary caretaker.
“I was hoping and praying that before I die he will be with me again,” she said.
Smith’s sister, Tiana Goodman, 25, said he would be meeting nieces and nephews who were born while he was in prison. “This is a big day for our family,” she said, tears running down her cheeks.
“I’m just so happy to have my brother back. My grandma’s been sick and she’s been holding on so she can see my brother, so this is a really big day for our family and we’re just so happy.”
Smith’s case spurred the creation of Innocence Matters, a non-profit organization whose pro-bono legal team has been at the helm of his exoneration for three years.
“We actually became a non-profit in a hurry so that we could have him be our first client,” founder and Smith’s lawyer Deirdre O’Connor told NBC4 on Friday.
The only eyewitness, Landu Mvuemba — a victim who was shot and survived — met with Innocence Matters representatives in 2010 and immediately blurted out that he had lied at the trial, O’Connor said.
Mvuemba said police pressured him to identify Smith as the shooter. Prosecutors told the judge they now believe he lied, and Schnegg found the conviction was based on perjured testimony.
“Within the first two minutes of the interview, Mvuemba recanted,” O’Connor said. Mvuemba was 16 at the time of the shooting.
He told representatives of Innocence Matters, “The police told me they knew who did it,” a defense motion stated.
O’Connor said Smith wept when she called him with the news about Mvuemba. “He said, ‘Why did he do it? Why did he lie?'” O’Connor recalled.
Mvuemba said police pointed to Smith, whom he had known in elementary school, and told him other witnesses had identified Smith as the shooter. Mvuemba said he also was shown a photo of his friend DeAnthony Williams, who died in the shooting.
“I felt a lot of pressure to go along with it,” Mvuemba said.
The two victims 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 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,” according to the defense motion. “But when he saw his deceased friend’s crying mother in the courtroom, he felt as if he had no other choice.”
Mvuemba is currently imprisoned on a rape conviction.
Schnegg said she held many meetings with the defense and prosecution in the year since the recanting was disclosed. The judge said they lacked sufficient information to declare Smith factually innocent, but she vacated his convictions for murder and attempted murder, and ordered him released.
O’Connor said Smith’s trial was undermined by ineffective assistance of attorneys who failed to investigate the case properly at trial and on appeal.
“We have a bit of a broken system and the fact that we can come in and make some systemic changes like this and help prevent it from happening to somebody else, it means the world,” said Jessica Farris with Innocence Matters.
Smith, meanwhile, said the first items on his agenda now that he’s free is to get a license and find a job.