Ex-gang member walks free after judge vacates murder conviction

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by LINDA DEUTSCH

Associated Press

Posted on September 24, 2012 at 7:15 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 25 at 7:20 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A judge on Monday cleared a former Los Angeles gang member of a murder that kept him in prison for 19 years, as prosecutors said they were convinced the lone eyewitness, who recently recanted, had been lying about the 1993 killing.

Applause from family and friends erupted in the courtroom as Judge Patricia Schnegg vacated the murder conviction of John Edward Smith, who appeared in court in a jail jumpsuit and was expected to be freed by the end of the day.

"Thank you for the opportunity to do justice," Schnegg told lawyers for both sides after she announced her ruling.

Among those cheering the decision was pop star Chris Brown, whose probation hearing involving the 2009 beating of his then-girlfriend Rihanna was set to follow Smith's case.

The 37-year-old Smith was 18 when he went to prison. He maintained he was at his grandmother's house with family members when the shooting took place blocks away in a gang-infested area on Sept. 9, 1993.

He said he knew nothing about the crime until his mother called to tell him about it.

The only eyewitness - a victim who was shot and survived - said police pressured him to identify Smith as the shooter.

Smith's exoneration was pursued by Innocence Matters, a Torrance, Calif., public interest law firm.

The eyewitness, Landu Mvuemba, met with Innocence Matters representatives in 2010 and immediately blurted out that he had lied at the trial, according to court papers filed by attorney Deirdre O'Connor, who heads the group.

"Within the first two minutes of the interview, Mvuemba recanted," O'Connor wrote. 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.

He 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, and he said, "I felt a lot of pressure to go along with it."

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.

O'Connor also said Smith's trial was undermined by ineffective assistance of attorneys who failed to investigate the case properly at trial and on appeal. She said lawyers and police often take "shortcuts" in gang cases.

"Mr. Smith was not the shooter," the motion said. "He was not at the scene of the crime."

 

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