On December 10, 1982, two masked men attempted to rob two women in the parking lot of the Elegant Farmer restaurant in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In the struggle, one of the women, 20-year-old Carmen Zink, was shot in the head and killed. On January 5, police arrested three men in connection with the murder: Phillip “Eggie” Lee, Briddie Johnson, and Charles Smith. Lee claimed that he was the getaway driver on the day of the murders, and that Smith had killed Zink. In exchange for testifying against Smith, all charges against Lee were dropped, though this was not announced at the time. Johnson’s charge was reduced to armed robbery.
Smith was tried for capital murder in September, 1983. The only evidence linking him to the crime was Lee’s testimony. Physical evidence from the scene of the crime, including Zink’s bloody clothes, had been either lost or destroyed by the prosecution prior to the trial. Smith’s attorney proved utterly incompetent at trial. He failed to impeach Lee’s testimony, despite contradictions in his story and evidence that he was framing Smith in order to protect himself and Johnson, who was his brother-in-law. Smith claimed to have been at a pool hall on the night of the murder, but his attorney did not call any alibi witnesses to substantiate this claim. He contacted the owner of the pool hall the day before the trial, but then entered his name wrong on a pretrial notice, and as a result, the judge would not allow the testimony at trial. Smith, who was deemed a “habitual offender,” was convicted on September 21, 1983, and sentenced to death.
Smith appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, but the appeal was denied on May 30, 1985. On March 22, 1986, Smith was granted a stay of execution as a new team of lawyers argued that the incompetence of his original lawyer prevented a fair trial. On December 13, 1989, the Indiana Supreme Court overturned his conviction based on ineffective assistance of counsel.
At Smith’s second trial, in 1991, the defense presented testimony from an alibi witness, as well as witnesses who testified that Lee had admitted to intentionally framing Smith. Smith was acquitted May 9, 1991, and released from prison that night.
- Alexandra Gross