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Feronda Smith

Other Michigan Murder Exonerations
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In December 2007, federal and state law enforcement officials arrested more than 30 people on charges of murder and drug dealing following a year-long investigation of the Pierson Hood street gang in Flint, Michigan.

The name of the gang referred to the neighborhood around a former elementary school in Flint. Among those arrested were 33-year-old Feronda Smith and 29-year-old Tarence Lard, who were charged with the murder and armed robbery of 29-year-old Larry Pass Jr., a drug dealer in Flint, on November 5, 2005.

At a pretrial hearing, Genesee County prosecutors called the FBI task force leader, Special Agent Dan Harris, to testify about informant compensation. Harris said that Mark Yancy had been paid $4,500 for his cooperation in the “Larry Pass homicide, which was information against Mr. Lard and Mr. Smith.”

By the time Smith went to trial in Genesee County Circuit Court in May 2011, Lard had agreed to plead guilty to unarmed robbery and manslaughter in return for a reduced sentence.

Lard testified that he and Smith went to Pass’s house to buy drugs. He said that he joined Yancy in the living room while Smith and Pass went to the bathroom to get the drugs. He said he heard five or six gunshots and saw Smith kneeling over Pass’s body.

Lard said he ordered Yancy to get the drugs and give them to him. All three left the apartment, Lard said.

Yancy testified that he came to Pass’s house earlier in the day and bought drugs. He returned later and was playing video games with Pass when Lard and Smith arrived.

Yancy said he knew Lard and Smith previously, and admitted that he had a heated dispute over money with Smith about a week earlier. He said that after Smith and Lard came in, Pass went to the bathroom to get drugs and was shot.

Lard pulled a gun and ordered Yancy to get the drugs—an ounce of crack cocaine and an ounce of power cocaine. Yancy said he didn’t see the shooting, but saw Smith holding a gun. He said that he had snorted cocaine and smoked marijuana at Pass’s apartment prior to the shooting, and that he snorted cocaine with Smith after the shooting.

While being questioned by the prosecutor, Yancy said he had been “paid by a federal agency for my cooperation.” The prosecutor limited the questions to whether Yancy had been paid for testifying in the case—which Yancy said he was not.

During cross-examination, Smith’s defense attorney asked, “First of all, it sounds like you agreed that you were paid $4,500 for cooperating with law enforcement, correct?”

“Correct,” Yancy said.

“But you deny that it was with regards to this case, correct?” the defense lawyer asked.

“Correct,” Yancy replied.

The prosecutor revisited the topic during redirect examination, asking Yancy whether he had been paid for his “testimony.” Yancy again denied being compensated.

“Okay, just so we’re clear, you were not paid to testify in this case, correct?” the prosecutor asked.

“Correct,” Yancy declared.

Police testified that shell casings collected came from the same gun, a nine-millimeter Luger firearm. The weapon, however, was never recovered. No evidence linking Smith to the apartment or the murder was found.

During closing argument, the prosecutor argued that Yancy was a credible witness who had been present at the time of the shooting. “He told you he did not get consideration in this case for testifying, that he got compensation on other cases the task force was involved with,” the prosecutor said.

On May 24, 2011, Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and armed robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Smith, represented by Michigan State Appellate Defender Valerie Newman, appealed, arguing that Yancy had testified falsely about his compensation and that the prosecution had knowingly allowed him to lie.

The Michigan Court of Appeals upheld Smith’s convictions, but in July 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial.

The court said, “Yancy’s trial testimony undoubtedly left the impression that he received no payment of any kind either for his testimony or his cooperation that was the necessary condition of his cooperation. The overall impression conveyed was false.”

The prosecutor “knew that Agent Harris had given uncontroverted pretrial testimony that Yancy was compensated for information central to the formal prosecution of the defendant,” the court said. “Instead of rectifying this false impression regarding Yancy's involvement, the prosecutor capitalized on and exploited it. Though well aware of Harris’s testimony and the fact of Yancy’s compensation, the prosecutor never took any steps to correct or explain Yancy's testimony. Rather, the prosecutor carefully limited her questioning of Yancy to the fact that he had been paid for cooperating with law enforcement, while never seeking to clarify that Yancy had been compensated for his cooperation in the investigation of the defendant.”

The court added that the prosecutor, during closing argument, “used Yancy’s general claims of non-compensation to her advantage…urging the jury to credit his story because ‘[h]e told you he did not get consideration on this case for testifying, that he got consideration on other cases that the task force was involved with.’”

The prosecutor’s actions, the court held, were “inconsistent with a prosecutor’s duty to correct false testimony. Indeed, the prosecutor sought to transform testimony that might have been merely confusing on its own into an outright falsity…Simply put, the prosecutor sought to benefit from the problematic testimony and use it to her advantage."

Smith went to trial a second time. In February 2018, after a month of testimony, the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict—deadlocking 9 to 3 in favor of acquittal—and a mistrial was declared.

While the case was awaiting a third trial, DNA obtained from a bullet casing found at a 2012 murder was submitted to the FBI DNA database. The DNA was linked to Yancy.

When Smith’s case came up for trial in December 2018, the prosecution reported they were unable to locate Yancy and sought a continuance. However, Genesee County Circuit Judge Joseph Farah declined. Smith’s attorney, Barry Wolf, filed a motion to dismiss the charges.

On December 4, Judge Farah dismissed the charges and Smith was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/4/2019
State:Michigan
County:Genesee
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:2005
Convicted:2011
Exonerated:2018
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:30
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No