John Edward Smith was 18 years old when he found himself wrongly accused - and later, wrong convicted - of a gang-related murder in Los Angeles. Today, Smith will taste freedom for the first time in his adult life. A Los Angeles judge has vacated his conviction, issuing an order that grants Smith his immediate release.
Smith's story is now one of triumph. It's also one of great sadness, as he's spent more than half of life in prison for a crime he did not commit. He will now face the difficult challenge of building a life on the outside without the benefit of education or the job experience an adult his age might have acquired.
Smith was convicted largely on the testimony of an eye-witness. That witness - a man named Landu Mvuemba - told police that he probably didn't have a good enough look at the crime to be a credible witness. Authorities still pressured him to testify and the result is history.
Mvuemba said police pointed to Smith, whom he had known in elementary school, and told him other witnesses had identified Smith as the shooter. Mvuemba said he also was shown a photo of his friend DeAnthony Williams, who died in the shooting.John Edward Smith is now free because of the faithful dedication of his grandmother - a woman who mortgaged her home to pay for his original defense - and because of the hard work of Innocence Matters, a California public interest firm.
"I felt a lot of pressure to go along with it," Mvuemba said
Mvuemba said he tried three times to tell authorities that he didn't see enough to testify, but his pleas were ignored.
"Mvuemba knew it was wrong to identify Mr. Smith as the man who shot him," according to the defense motion. "But when he saw his deceased friend's crying mother in the courtroom, he felt as if he had no other choice."
This time, the hard work of lawyers played an important role in Smith's defense. That was not always the case, though. During the original trial, his defense was part of the problem.
O'Connor said Smith's trial was undermined by ineffective assistance of attorneys who failed to investigate the case properly at trial and on appeal.This underscores a major national problem. It's one that often goes overlooked and unnoticed by the disinterested masses. Death penalty attorney and social justice advocate Bryan Stephenson once made the point in an eloquent and startling manner when he said:
The opposite of poverty is not wealth. Unfortunately, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.Studies have shown a direct link between poverty and incarceration. Other studies have shown that for black men, education level is strongly correlated to the likelihood of incarceration. In 2008, roughly 35% of black men who dropped out of high school were incarcerated. From a sociological perspective, there are many explanations for this. Low income people have more incentive to commit certain property crimes. They also have less to lose in terms of social status and opportunity cost.
Another explanation lies with quality of representation for poor defendants. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty laid out its argument strongly in 2008:
“Perhaps the most important factor in determining whether a defendant will receive the death penalty is the quality of the representation he or she is provided. Almost all defendants in capital cases cannot afford their own attorneys. In many cases, the appointed attorneys are overworked, underpaid, or lacking the trial experience required for death penalty cases. There have even been instances in which lawyers appointed to a death case were so inexperienced that they were completely unprepared for the sentencing phase of the trial. Other appointed attorneys have slept through parts of the trial, or arrived at the court under the influence of alcohol.”The problem is most evident in those capital cases where the death penalty is on the table. Luckily for John Edward Smith, California prosecutors did not decide to end his life for this crime he didn't commit. Still, underfunding for public defenders and poorly organized public defense systems contribute to the justice problem for the poor.
In eighteen death penalty states, there exists no statewide public defense initiative. In many of those states, the court-appointed public defenders are given overwhelming case loads, increasing the incentive for attorneys to advise their low-leverage and low-information clients to plead guilty. The problem extends to salary incentives for new public defenders. Both in private and public practice, salaries for these public servants are so low that only a very small percentage of qualified minds will dare take the position. In many cases, first-year public defenders can expect to make less than a fourth of what their big firm counterparts make.
The problem was typified in one Georgia county, where public defense cases were assigned according to a low-bid contract system. There, over a five year stretch, one low-bid attorney tried only fourteen cases, entered only seven motions, and plead guilty a grand total of 262 times.
Harris County, the home of four-million person Houston, only recently added a public defender's office. This is a county where 13 men were executed between 2004 and 2011, yet the county did not establish a dedicated public defender's office until last year. The new Harris County office undoubtedly came in response to the disastrous system previous employed. In 2009, the Houston Chronicle noted the experience of overworked Houston criminal attorneys:
Lawyer Jerome Godinich, chastised by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals this year for repeatedly failing to meet federal death penalty deadlines, has represented an average of 360 felony clients per year in Harris County — a caseload that surpasses every other similar attorney.The article goes on to note other examples, including one capital defense attorney who took multiple cases in a single day.
In Michigan, the problem is so evident that the Governor's office has taken notice. On Fridays in Ottawa County, the courts have what are known as "McJustice Days" - mornings when poor defendants without representation are arraigned quickly. The state's problems are evident in at least two other counties:
In Sault Ste. Marie, attorneys representing the poor have little time to prepare and wait in line to meet with their clients in the courthouse’s unisex bathroom.The governor's panel found that Michigan needs roughly $50 million per year in addition funding to even bring the state up to the national average. Even then, it could be argued, the state would attain a standard that leaves the poor with inadequate defense.
In Wayne County, court-appointed attorneys haven’t received a raise in decades and say they often take on more cases than they can handle.
That same Michigan report notes a disturbing public spending trend. Of the ten states that spend the least per capita on indigent defense, nine are death penalty states. Coming in last is Mississippi, a state that spends just more than four dollars. The 2008 national average sat at $11.86.
John Edward Smith's story is a triumphant one for today. It shows the best of our justice system, as a number of parties came together to right a clear wrong. But it also exposes the ugly underbelly of that same system. In many parts of the country today, it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. That is a startling indictment in a country where the punishment in many cases is irreversible death.
As a person who currently works with a post-conviction innocence organization, I have seen the stories. The numbers can tell us a great deal, but it is difficult to understand the human toll until you read the hand-written letters from inmates who can barely spell their names. Whether guilty or truly innocent, these individuals tell stories of poor representation. They tell stories of defense attorneys who viewed them - and their lives - as nothing more than another item on a billet that was just too full that week. In many cases, these people are railroaded through the system, taking on punishments that would never happen to those of us who might be able to hire a skilled, underworked criminal attorney.
This is the untold tragedy in America. Even in many "success" stories, men like John Edward Smith are left to put together the pieces of their broken lives. Lives that have been stolen from them in an unjust system.