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Larry Smith, Jr.

Other Wayne County, Michigan CIU exonerations
https://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/PublishingImages/Larry_Smith.jpeg
At about 5 a.m. on March 24, 1994, 20-year-old Kenneth Hayes, a drug dealer, was fatally shot at 2250 Annabelle Street in Detroit, Michigan after he returned home from a drug run.

Witnesses claimed that 18-year-old Larry Smith Jr. chased and shot Hayes, and then fled in a car driven by 19-year-old Jay Clay.

Later that morning, Detroit police executed a search warrant at the home of Smith’s mother, Debra, located just a few blocks from the shooting. By that time, Smith had already turned himself in at Detroit police headquarters.

During the search, police said they found an empty ammunition box for .40-caliber bullets in Smith’s basement bedroom and an expended .40-caliber shell casing in a clothes hamper in the basement. Police also confiscated a pair of Honcho brand work boots.

On March 25, 1994, Smith was charged with first-degree murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Clay also was charged, but in July 1994, the charges against him were dismissed.

In November 1994, Smith went to trial before a jury in the city of Detroit Recorder’s Court.

Sandra Cartwright testified that Hayes was her godson. She said that he was living with her along with Cartwright’s son, Ralph, in their home on Annabelle Street. Cartwright said Hayes woke her at 4 a.m. to say that he was going out and that he would be back. About 20 minutes after he left, she said she heard a noise outside the house. She went back to bed, however, and was awakened about an hour later by gunshots.

She said that by the time she got up, Hayes’s girlfriend, Ursula Jackson, who was staying overnight, came running into the house. Cartwright testified—over defense objection—that Jackson “said to me, ‘I looked right in his face. It was Butter.’” This testimony was allowed although Jackson had told police that she didn’t see anything. At the time of the trial, the prosecution said Jackson was in California and could not be subpoenaed to testify.

Butter, Cartwright said, was Smith’s childhood nickname.

Carl Voltz testified that Hayes telephoned him and asked to be picked up at 5 a.m. Voltz said he drove Hayes to a house and waited outside until Hayes came back out. Voltz said that when they pulled up on Annabelle Street and Hayes got out, a gunman came out from a gangway next to Hayes’s residence and began shooting. Voltz said he did not see the gunman’s face and that he sped off.

Ralph Cartwright testified that he saw Smith, whom he knew as “Butter,” walking back and forth in front of the house prior to the shooting. He said he never saw Smith’s face, but that he recognized him from his build and his gait. After the gunshots, Cartwright said he saw a figure—whom he identified as Smith—chasing Hayes. Cartwright said that after the shooting, he saw a car that he recognized as belonging to Clay come down the street. He said the gunman got inside and the car drove off.

A police evidence technician testified that seven expended .40-caliber shell casings were found on the street leading from the house on Annabelle to where Hayes’s body fell to the ground in an alley. The technician said he photographed a footprint in the mud in the alley.

A medical examiner testified that Hayes was shot in the arm and in the back. The bullet that pierced his arm had exited and the slug was not recovered. The bullet in his back lodged in his chest. The slug was a .32-caliber bullet—not a .40-caliber bullet.

Harold Mitchell, a homicide detective, testified that he recovered the Honcho boots from Smith’s bedroom. Mitchell said that the Honcho logo was on the bottom of the boots.

Assistant prosecutor Robert Donaldson asked, “And these are a mirror image of that pattern in that…the footprint in the alley?”

“Yes, it was,” Mitchell testified.

“And, sir,” Donaldson asked, “Indeed, within the sole of that shoe, embedded in the sole and the tread pattern is mud, is there not?”

“Yes, there is,” Mitchell replied.

During cross-examination, Mitchell said he did not know whether anyone had attempted to make a comparison of the photograph of the footprint and the confiscated boots.

David Pauch, a police officer in the firearm identification unit testified that he examined the seven shell casings found at the scene of the shooting.

“I microscopically compared them against each other to determine if they were fired from the same weapon,” Pauch testified.

“To the exclusion of all others?” Donaldson asked.

“That’s right, sir,” Pauch said.

“So there’s no doubt in your mind that the same weapon fired all of those rounds?” Donald asked.

“That’s right, sir,” Pauch said.

Donaldson asked Pauch if he had compared the casing found in the clothes hamper in Smith’s basement to the seven casings found at the scene.

“My conclusion was that it was fired from the same weapon as the other seven,” Pauch testified.

“So the casing from [Smith’s hamper] matched the other casings you looked at?” Donaldson asked.

“Yes, sir,” Pauch said.

Pauch also testified that the .32-caliber bullet recovered from Hayes’s body could not have been fired from a .40-caliber handgun.

Edward Allen testified that he was in the jail awaiting trial on a robbery charge and had conversations with Smith during which Smith admitted that he shot Hayes. “He say he killed a guy. Ran him down and shot him,” Allen said.

Allen denied that he had been promised any benefits from the prosecution in exchange for his testimony. He also said he never testified as a prosecution witness before. Allen claimed that Smith bragged that he was carrying a Glock nine-millimeter pistol and that Clay was carrying a .45-caliber pistol.

Detective Monica Childs said that she talked to Smith after he came to the police station upon learning that detectives were looking for him. She said that Smith was asking her what the evidence was against him. She said that she told him witnesses had identified him. “He said, ‘They couldn’t have seen my face because I had a hood on,’” Childs said.

“That’s when he became very agitated and did not want to continue the interview,” Childs said.

Sgt. Patrick Henahan testified that he refused to allow Smith to speak to a lawyer that Smith’s mother had hired. Henahan said that he had a memo from a prosecutor saying that police could deny access to any lawyer who was not known by the person in custody. That memo was never produced.

He then escorted Smith back to the lockup. He said that while they were waiting for the elevator, Smith “told me that we could let Jay Clay go. He didn’t have anything to do with this.”

Smith’s mother, Debra, testified that Smith spent the night in the basement bedroom. She said that she was up all night working on a presentation for a course she was taking as part of her pursuit of a master’s degree in sociology. She said that Smith didn’t leave the house until 8 a.m. when he went to work.

During closing argument to the jury, prosecutor Donaldson declared, “We learned that those boots left prints in the alleyway….[T]here’s a footprint in that area that positively links the defendant” to the shooting. To account for the .32-caliber bullet that killed Hayes and the .40-caliber shell casings, the prosecutor argued that Smith must have had two guns.

The defense argued that the identification by Ralph Cartwright—who admitted he never saw the gunman’s face—was wrong and that the evidence was insufficient to convict Smith.

On November 29, 1994, the jury convicted Smith of first-degree murder and possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 1997, the Michigan Court of Appeals denied his direct appeal. In 2003, Smith filed a motion for relief from judgment after receiving a letter from Allen, who was in prison, admitting that he had lied about Smith admitting involvement. Allen also admitted that he had lied when he said that he had never testified for the prosecution before. He provided information on two other cases in which he had testified for the prosecution prior to Smith’s trial.

Smith’s bid for a new trial was denied. Judge Vera Massey Jones, who has presided over Smith’s trial, ruled that Allen’s recantation was not credible.

In July 2007, Smith was represented by attorney Mary Owens, who filed a federal habeas petition on Smith’s behalf. In 2008, the Detroit police crime lab was shut down after an audit performed by the Michigan State Police exposed widespread errors in firearms testing, including many cases handled by Pauch. The petition was subsequently put on hold to allow Smith to seek retesting of the firearms evidence in his case. This was to no avail, however, because although the seven casings found at the scene were still in evidence, the casing that police said they recovered from the clothes hamper in Smith’s basement bedroom had been destroyed.

When he returned to federal court, an amended petition was filed that said Allen had claimed that police solicited him to falsely testify that Smith had confessed to the crime. Allen also claimed he had a sexual relationship with the officer who had induced him to falsely accuse Smith.

In February 2017, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman denied the petition for a variety of reasons, primarily on the basis that Smith’s claims were untimely filed or had no merit.

In May 2017, journalist Ryan Felton published an article about the rampant use of jailhouse informants—snitches—in the Detroit Metro Times. Felton noted that Allen had told a private investigator that Detroit police filed over 100 murder cases as a result of testimony from jailhouse informants. Felton wrote that Allen said that, “unlike jail and non-police witnesses on the ninth floor, informants…received preferential treatment that even trustees would not normally expect.” According to Felton, "Allen received hot food and drugs from the outside often while on the ninth floor," the investigator wrote in a summary of a January 2013 interview with the informant. "Allen did drugs and sold them while working as a police witness. Police officers would arrange for police witnesses to invite guests to the police station and to have sex in the witness rooms located on the lower floors of the police department."

According to the investigator, Allen said, "The police would also supply police witnesses with the discovery packets and allow them to read up on the case so that eventually testimony would match the government's allegations."

In January 2018, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of Smith’s federal habeas petition.

Years earlier, Smith had enlisted the help of Claudia Whitman, the director of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network, whose work led to several exonerations of Wayne County defendants convicted on the basis of false jail informant testimony.

In 2018, after the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office created a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), Whitman and Owens brought the case to Valerie Newman, who was the head of the unit.

On February 4, 2021, Newman and Owens filed a joint motion to vacate Smith’s conviction and to dismiss the case. Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Shannon Walker granted the motion and Smith was released.

“After a thorough review of the investigation and evidence in this case, we have determined that Mr. Smith certainly is entitled to a new trial,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kim Worthy said in a statement. “We found that the Detroit Police Department’s informant was unreliable as well as the testimony of a key witness.”

Owens, Smith’s attorney, said, “After 26 years of wrongful imprisonment, justice has finally been done, due to the incredible work of the Conviction Integrity Unit.

Smith filed a claim for compensation from the state of Michigan in March 2021.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/4/2021
Last Updated: 4/14/2021
State:Michigan
County:Wayne
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Gun Possession or Sale
Reported Crime Date:1994
Convicted:1994
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No