An innocent man was freed Tuesday night after spending nearly 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
John Edward Smith was cleared of his murder conviction in a Los Angeles courtroom after 19 years behind bars upon a witness’ erroneous testimony.
“Conviction vacated,” said Judge Patricia Schnegg. “Mr. Smith you are now released.”
The smile of a free man lit up the courtroom Tuesday. The 37-year-old Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted murder in connection with a drive-by shooting in South Los Angeles in 1993. But the conviction was vacated after it was determined that the key eyewitness at trial committed perjury.
“It was a drive-by, unexpected. Bang, bang. One guy dies. Another guy takes a bullet to the abdomen. He’s believed to not survive that injury at the time he was shot. He couldn’t breathe. And it wasn’t until two months later that he made an ID. And he said ‘Oh yeah, it was the guy I went to school with,’” said Smith’s attorney Deirdre O’Connor.
O’Connor started a non-profit two years ago called Innocence Matters. The first call she took was from Smith. After he passed a polygraph test, O’Connor talked to Smith’s accuser, Landu Mvuemba, who was the other shooting victim and the key eyewitness. Mvuemba recanted, saying he never saw who shot him and that he was pressured by investigators.
Smith went to prison as a teenager and leaves a 37-year-old man with so much to catch up on and even more to look forward to.
“There are good days and bad days, you know what I mean? Staying hopeful, and that’s all I can do. It’s like bittersweet, but I’m glad where I’m at now with it. I want to go home,” Smith said after he was released. “I’m not bitter at all, because that’s not going to get me nowhere. I’ve got to move forward.”
Smith said what he looked forward to the most was going home to see his grandmother. Smith’s family said they’ve been waiting years for this day and they never stopped believing that it would actually happen.
“I always knew he didn’t do it,” said Smith’s grandmother, Laura Neal. “I was hoping and praying that before I die he would be with me again.”
Smith’s grandmother raised him. She was noticeably emotional when the judge set him free. Smith has always said he was at home with his grandmother when the shooting happened.
“My grandma’s been sick. She’s been holding on so she could see my brother, so this is a really big day for our family. We’re just so happy,” said Smith’s sister, Tirena Goodman.