On the morning of September 9, 1993, gunshots were fired at Landu Mvuemba and DeAnthony Williams as they walked near 17th Street and Rimpau Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, where a gang shooting between members of the Schoolyard Crips and Rolling 20's (Bloods) street gangs had occurred the day before.
Williams,16, was killed and Mvuemba, 16, survived with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Mvuemba told authorities that the shots were fired from a red car and that he believed members of the Rollin 20’s street gang were involved. Williams and Mvuemba were not members of either gang.
On November 2, Mvuemba was taken out of high school by police, placed in handcuffs and driven to a police station, where he identified a photograph of 18-year-old John Edward Smith as the gunman. He signed a statement saying that he recognized Smith because he had seen him in school a few years earlier and they were on the school track team together.
Smith had been arrested after the shooting in an unrelated incident. Two other youths claimed he tried to rob them. Although he was arrested, the robbery case was never filed. While he was still in custody, police decided to include his picture in the lineup because of an anonymous tip that Smith was bragging about doing the shooting.
On December 2, Smith was charged in the shooting.
He went on trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court on October 31, 1994. The sole eyewitness was Mvuemba, who said he had not initially identified Smith to police because he was afraid of being branded a snitch.
Smith testified that he was at his adopted grandmother's house at the time of the shooting. He admitted he was a member of the Bloods, but denied he was involved. His adopted grandmother testified that he was at her house with relatives at the time of the shooting.
Smith’s mother testified that due to the gang violence near her home, her son had been staying with his grandmother. She said she saw the shooting because it occurred on the street where she lived and that she called the grandmother’s home to report the shooting. John was there at the time, she said.
Smith’s lawyer did not call three other witnesses who could have corroborated the alibi testimony and he did not obtain documentary records, such as phone records, that could have supported their testimony.
The jury convicted Smith of murder and attempted murder on November 2, 1994 and he was sentenced to life in prison plus three years and a consecutive sentence of 29 years to life.
Smith filed a state appeal based on inadequate legal assistance at trial, but it was denied, as was a subsequent federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Smith then reached out to Deirdre O’Connor, an attorney who was in the process of forming Innocence Matters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigating wrongful convictions. Smith became Innocence Matters' first client.
Smith took and passed a polygraph examination. Mvuemba was interviewed in a California prison and minutes after the interview began, he blurted out that he had falsely implicated Smith.
Innocence Matters also learned during this interview that Mvuemba tried to recant to the police twice before trial and once a few years after the trial and the defense had never been informed. Mvuemba then took and passed a polygraph examination.
Mvuemba said that he had falsely identified Smith because police told him that other witnesses had already identified Smith as the gunman.
The re-investigation of the case revealed that police had received evidence that another street gang member had shot Williams and Mvuemba. This gang member was also responsible for another shooting in October—a few weeks after the shooting that killed Williams. When police sought to arrest the man for the October shooting, they could not find him. This evidence was not disclosed to Smith’s defense lawyer prior to Smith’s trial.
In October 2010, O’Connor filed a petition for a state writ of habeas corpus. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office conducted its own re-investigation of the murder and concluded that Smith was not involved.
On September 24, 2012, a judge granted a joint motion by O’Connor and the prosecution to vacate Smith’s convictions. The charges were dismissed and Smith was released.
– Maurice Possley