By Maureen Halpert
Former gang member John Edward Smith finally got his day in Court–after 19 years in prison he was released as a free man. His road to innocence wasn’t easy since being “wrongly accused” as the shooter in a September 9, 1993 drive-by murder in a gang-infested area of Los Angeles.
John never thought he would be convicted of the crime–after all he and his girlfriend were at his grandmother’s house when the shooting occurred. But jurors took the words of key eyewitness, 16-year old accuser and shooting victim, Landu Myuemba, as truth returning a guilty verdict. John was 18 when he received a life sentence for his alleged role in the crime. He was 37 when he was finally exonerated and released from prison on September 24, 2012.
John’s release became international news–and after seeing his story, I wanted to find out more about him. A few weeks later I actually got a chance to meet and talk to John at his exoneration party honoring both he and his now 80-year old grandmother, Laura Neal. Attorney Deirdre O’Connor and “Innocence Matters” the group responsible for John’s release hosted his “Welcome Home” event.
As background, John had been working with attorneys since he was first accused of the shooting, but their efforts were futile. His first attorney appointed by the Court, proved totally incompetent in John’s defense. And the private attorney firm his grandparents hired proved just as incompetent or perhaps more by missing a filing deadline causing John’s case to be dismissed—a fact they tried to keep from John despite his many attempts to reach them. What’s more John’s grandparents mortgaged their home for $65,000 to pay for their services!
Desperate for help, he contacted Deirdre O’Connor’s “Innocence Matters” in 2009. Since Deidre’s Organization was newly founded, it had little funds for such a project. But she became taken in by John’s story and offered him some pro bono work, which then evolved into “Innocence Matters” first official case. Deirdre along with her group of dedicated interns and volunteers donated over 2,000 hours in time and money researching, investigating, interviews, doing polygraphs and all means necessary to prove John’s innocence.
They also revealed that John’s key eyewitness, Laundu Myuemba, had lied—something critical to John’s release. What’s more, during their interview, Laundu said police pressured him to identify John as the shooter even though Landu didn’t see who shot him. He also told police he heard whom the actual shooter was in the murder, and identified him as “RC” the same name Police had heard from other unidentified sources! Sadly, this was never investigated!
As a result of Deirdre and her group’s efforts, John was finally released as a free man after 19 years of imprisonment. A lot can change over 19 years. His sister, Tiana Goodman, now 25, was a young child when he left. His grandmother, Laura Neal, who lovingly supported him throughout his ordeal now walks with the aid of a walker and is supposedly in ailing health, but you would never know it by seeing her beaming eyes and broad smile—the same smile that John shares with her. And you can see the love and bond they share as they watch over each other. And Laura is so excited about the Christmas tree she is putting up…the first since John’s arrest!
As for John, you might think he would be bitter…but instead he wants to get on with his life, and says, “He has so much time ahead.” When asked if he wanted to go camping, he said he would pass since he just finished 19 years of a type of camping! Yes, there is a list of things John has missed—as two Presidents, the election of the first black President, 9-11, gay marriage, obscene gas prices and, of course, technology! John recently wrote a letter in long hand and got a stamp to mail it! When asked why didn’t he e-mail it, he replied what is e-mail? John has started to use a computer and e-mail is coming, but Facebook, Twitter and social networking may have to wait.When I showed him my digital camera, seeing the image of a photograph on the LCD screen fascinated him! Can you imagine what he would do with a Kindle or IPAD, I-Phone or Smartphone, SDHC card, and all the other technology gadgets we take for granted?
Despite all John as gone through, he is an amazing nice guy! He is considerate and has quite a sense of humor. Some say he shares a similarity with Eddy Murphy! But he also emanates a sense of innocence like a child…after all he was a child when he was pulled from society. I saw this in one of the photos taken of him with his sister and brother in law…instead of being right next to them he maintained a distance between he and them…something a child might do.
As for John’s future, you can see him doing good things, as he is bright, articulate, reflective, physically fit and eager to learn. He wants to get a job and contribute to society–but it may be more difficult for him than for someone never incarcerated, since John is starting almost from scratch at age 37. He has his GED and some construction experience, but he also needs more marketable skills, which only an education can bring. Hopefully, he can get a scholarship, grant or something that can help him.
Most importantly, John needs a good support system by his side as he transitions back into society. “Innocence Matters” and John’s family have been amazing in their support, and without them he would not be where he is today. Deirdre and her team have developed a strong bond with John, and Deirdre and John have shed tears of joy in the pursuit of justice!
Likely there are other gang members behind bars who were wrongly convicted as according to Deirdre O’Connor, “…Lawyers and police often take “shortcuts” in gang cases.” “…And John Smith’s trial was undermined by ineffective assistance of attorneys who failed to investigate his case properly at trial and on appeal.”
You can guarantee this won’t be the last case of innocence gone awry and that Deirdre and “Innocence Matters” will continue to fight for those who need them most!
I hope to continue to follow John Smith’s journey of freedom as well as a possible documentary telling John’s story!
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