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Paul Smith

Other Orange County, California exonerations
On December 8, 2009, a grand jury in Orange County, California, indicted 49-year-old Paul Gentile Smith on charges of soliciting a former inmate at the Orange County jail to inflict harm on a sheriff’s deputy.

The indictment alleged that beginning in March 2009 and up through October 2009, Smith, while in the jail awaiting trial for a 1988 murder in Huntington Beach, solicited Art Palacios to harm Raymond Wert, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy who was the lead investigator in Smith’s murder case.

Smith had been indicted earlier in the year for the October 24, 1988 stabbing death of 29-year-old Robert Haugen in Haugen’s residence in Sunset Beach, a neighborhood of Huntington Beach.

According to the prosecution, Smith, while awaiting trial for the murder, sought the assistance of Palacios to find someone to harm Wert. A phone number passed to Smith actually belonged to an undercover officer.

Smith was charged with solicitation to commit assault, conspiracy to commit assault, and attempted assault with a deadly weapon. His former girlfriend, Tina Derae Smith, also was charged in the case.

In October 2010, Smith went to trial on the murder charge in Orange County Superior Court. The prosecution witnesses included Palacios, who said that while they were in the jail together, Smith admitted that he killed Haugen over a marijuana deal. Haugen was stabbed 18 times and his body set afire. The only physical evidence connecting Smith to the crime was a few drops of blood which contained Smith’s DNA. The blood was found on a washcloth in the bathroom and on the kitchen floor.

Smith was charged in the murder after he had been convicted of assaulting Tina Smith in Las Vegas. Upon conviction, his DNA was submitted to the national DNA database, and it was linked to the DNA profile from the blood drops that had been submitted to the unsolved crimes section of the DNA database.

Smith denied committing the murder. He told the jury that he had cut himself while in the apartment not long before the murder. He said that Haugen was a friend and that he regularly bought marijuana from him.

Tina Smith testified that during her relationship with Smith, he stabbed her on several occasions, and, in one incident, he restrained her, doused her with lighter fluid, and threatened to set her on fire if she did not admit to stealing money from him.

Smith’s attorney argued that Smith had a “sordid relationship of sexual adventure” with Tina that included swing parties, orgies, and sex games with handcuffs and torture.

On November 2, 2010, Smith was convicted of first-degree murder with a special circumstance finding of torture. On November 29, 2010, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus one year.

That same day, Smith pled guilty to the charges relating to the solicitation to harm Wert. He was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison. By that time, Tina Smith had pled guilty to conspiracy to commit aggravated assault and was sentenced to 240 days in jail.

In October 2011, Scott Dekraai went on a shooting rampage in Seal Beach, California, killing eight people. In 2014, during hearings in that case, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders discovered that prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies had recruited a secret group of jailhouse informants to coax confessions from defendants in the jail. It is illegal for prosecutors and police to use informants to try to obtain information from defendants who have lawyers and have been charged with crimes.

The extent of the use of the informants was not disclosed to defense lawyers. As a sanction for the misconduct, the judge overseeing Dekraai’s prosecution ruled that the state could not seek the death penalty. Dekraai pled guilty to the murders and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Numerous defendants who had been convicted in part on the basis of testimony from one jailhouse informant, then began seeking to vacate their convictions as information surfaced about the use of multiple informants in their cases.

Smith became one of those defendants after Ebrahim Baytieh, who prosecuted Smith, sent a letter to Smith’s defense lawyers, Sanders and Sara Ross, saying he had just learned of the information that there were two other informants in addition to Palacios–Jeffrey Platt and Paul Martin.

A petition filed by Smith’s defense lawyers subsequently said that the first informant to approach Smith was Jeffrey Platt, based on police reports that were withheld from the defense and not disclosed until years later.

“Although the informants went to work almost immediately, Platt stated that it took time to get [Smith] comfortable speaking about the crimes,” the petition said. “According to Platt, he followed up weeks of questioning and deception with the informants confronting [Smith] about his denials and all three informants ‘prodding’ [Smith] to tell the truth. It was after all this that [Smith] purportedly admitted his responsibility for the killing at a time when all three informants [were] present for the conversation and the admissions.”

The petition noted that Platt told Smith that when he was released he would help him orchestrate a plan to injure or kill witnesses, including Investigator Wert.

Moreover, in 2009, one month after Platt was released from the jail, Palacios sent his first note to the sheriff’s department describing inculpatory statements allegedly made by Smith. “However, Palacios would never say a word about how statements were first elicited by the trifecta of informants, or the resistance that they had encountered in the effort [to] get [Smith] to speak.”

On August 9, 2021, Orange County Superior Court Judge Patrick Donohue vacated Smith’s murder conviction based on evidence that Baytieh had failed to disclose that there were two other informants, in addition to Palacios, who were repeatedly pestering Smith about his pending murder trial. The murder conviction was vacated after some of the deputies, including Wert, said they would refuse to testify if called to a hearing about their use of the informants. The Sheriff’s Office blamed the prosecution for not turning over the information.

Donahue vacated the murder conviction at the request of District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who said: “It is indisputable that an interview of an informant related to this defendant existed and was in the possession of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department… “What [also] is not in dispute is the fact that the prosecutor had a duty to discover that to the defense.”

Spitzer then hired a private law firm to investigate “whether there was a failure by the prosecutor to turn over discovery and whether the prosecutor was truthful in all subsequent and related inquiries.”

In February 2022, Spitzer fired Baytieh as a prosecutor.

On August 30, 2022, at the prosecution’s request, Orange County Superior Court Judge Michael Cassidy vacated Smith’s convictions relating to the solicitation case, and the charges were dismissed.

An attorney for Wert said in court that Wert and his family still felt threatened. The attorney also complained that Smith's attorney, Sanders, had come to Wert’s home to try to interview him.

After the hearing, Sanders accused Wert of “Jaw-dropping hypocrisy.” Sanders told the Orange County Register newspaper, "It's as if he's blocked from his memory his misconduct, and that he took the Fifth [Amendment] so he wouldn't have to answer questions about his cheating.”

By that time, Baytieh had been elected as an Orange County Superior Court Judge. He won election in June 2022 with 55 percent of the vote and was to be sworn in as a judge in January 2023.

Smith remained in custody awaiting a possible retrial on the murder charge.

In October 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded a lengthy investigation of the informant program and concluded: "Our investigation revealed that from 2007 to 2016 there existed a well-established program in Orange County to use custodial informants to obtain incriminating statements from defendants in homicide and gang-related prosecutions who were housed at the Orange County Jail and then use those statements against the defendants at trial. Through the execution of the custodial informant program, [the sheriff's department] and [the district attorney's office] engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that resulted in the deprivation of criminal defendants’ Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights."

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/13/2022
Last Updated: 10/13/2022
Most Serious Crime:Attempt, Violent
Additional Convictions:Conspiracy, Solicitation
Reported Crime Date:2009
Sentence:4 years and 8 months
Age at the date of reported crime:49
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No