Sentenced to six years in prison in 1981 for the manslaughter of 41-year-old Anne Marie Smith in Highland Park, California, Charles Fred Persico was released on parole in 1984 and later exonerated based on the confession of the actual killer, Dennis France. Dennis France confessed that he, under the direction of Los Angeles police officer, William (Bill) E. Leasure, had murdered Anne Smith at the request of Smith’s husband, Art Smith.
On May 29, 1980, shortly before 9:00 a.m., Anne Smith left her home and drove to the South Pasadena Police Department. She asked to see a family friend who worked there, Detective Budd Swap, to tell him she believed her husband, Art Smith, was making threats on her life. She came to request help and protection. Detective Swap, however, was not there, so Smith simply left a message to have him call her at work.
Smith arrived at her place of work, Dee Anne’s House of Beauty, about 9:15 a.m. Five to ten minutes later, a short, pale, rumpled man in an untucked denim shirt strode in through the front door. He had a cap pulled down to his eyebrows, and he hunched his shoulders, keeping his head down and face averted. Walking past the cash register without a glance and ignoring the other women in the shop, he grabbed Smith, took her to the storage area in the rear of the building, shot her, and ran from the building. Smith died immediately.
LAPD detectives Neil Westbrook and Nelson Crowe were assigned to the case within the hour, quickly identifying Smith’s insurance adjuster husband as their prime suspect. They did not believe the shooting was motivated by robbery because the killer had ignored jewelry and purses in plain view. He had clearly targeted Smith.
Family members, in interviews with the detectives, said they were certain Art Smith was behind the murder because he feared his wife was trying to obtain a large divorce settlement. Unfortunately, this theory was all based on hearsay and there was no evidence. The women in the beauty shop were unable to describe the gunman in much detail.
The mechanic employed by a dealership near the beauty shop described two suspicious men parked outside the shop in a distinctive green Chevy Nova with white racing stripes and the word “Rally” stenciled on the side. The mechanic provided good descriptions of the men, but his memory differed from the vague recollections of the women in the shop.
In February 1981, the investigation took an unexpected turn. The detectives received an anonymous tip from Charles Persico’s heroin-addicted wife, Elvia. She told them that Persico lived in the area and resembled a composite drawing of one of the murder suspects. When investigators realized that there was no connection between Art Smith and Charles Persico, the police changed their theory and shifted their focus. Less than a month later, the detectives arrested Persico. Anne Smith’s mother and a customer, both of whom had been present at the beauty shop, identified Persico as the killer, despite their earlier inability to describe the gunman. The eyewitness mechanic, however, said he was the wrong man.
The state’s case against Persico was weak at best. On April 21, 1981, in an eleventh-hour plea bargain just before the jury began its deliberations, the prosecutor offered to plead the charges down from first-degree murder to manslaughter with a sentence of six years. If Persico agreed, he could be out of prison in three years with credit for time served and other built-in sentence reductions rather than risk life in prison without the possibility of parole. Persico, who had already spent half his life in prison for a multitude of drug offenses, agreed to the plea. He did not want to risk being convicted of murder, even though he continued to profess his innocence.
After serving three and one-half years of his sentence, Persico was paroled on September 9, 1984. Two years later, in 1986, Persico’s innocence came to the attention of the district attorney when the actual killer, Dennis France, admitted he had committed the crime. France was a hitman who had been hired by Los Angeles police officer William Leasure at the request of the victim’s husband, Art Smith. France, who had been arrested as a result of information given police by his brother, Jerry, received immunity for his confession, during which he implicated Leasure. Judge Betty Jo Sheldon was presented with this sealed evidence exonerating Persico, and she set aside his conviction and released him from parole.
France served no time in prison. Leasure, who had been involved in an additional murder, pleaded no contest to two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15-years-to-life in prison with the possibility of parole. Art Smith was charged with one count of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. He was convicted of first-degree murder, with a finding of “special circumstances.”
In the summer of 1992, following the convictions of Leasure and Smith, Persico was paid $150,000 by the City of Los Angeles in settlement of a lawsuit against the LAPD for its handling of the case.
On September 14, 1992, he was awarded $4.8 million in a federal civil rights case for his wrongful conviction, constituting both compensatory and punitive damages. This amounted to $2,000 for each of the 1,659 days he spent in prison. No records have been located indicating that he ever received the money awarded to him.
– David L. Ridenour and Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.