LOS ANGELES (AP) – A former Los Angeles gang member could soon be cleared of a murder conviction that kept him behind bars for 19 years. Lawyers for James Edward Smith planned to ask a judge on Monday to vacate his murder and attempted murder convictions involving a 1993 drive-by shooting. Prosecutors planned to support the motion.
The 37-year-old Smith was 18 when he went to prison. He maintained he was at his grandmother’s house with family members when the shooting took place blocks away in a gang-infested area on Sept. 9, 1993. He said he knew nothing about the crime until his mother called to tell him about it.
The only eyewitness – a victim who was shot and survived – recently recanted and said police pressured him to identify Smith as the shooter. Smith’s exoneration was pursued by Innocence Matters, a Torrance, Calif., public interest law firm.
Mvuemba met with Innocence Matters representatives in 2010 and immediately blurted out that he had lied at the trial, according to court papers filed by attorney Deirdre O’Connor, who heads the group.
“Within the first two minutes of the interview, Mvuemba recanted,” O’Connor wrote. Mvuemba was 16 at the time of the shooting. He told representatives of Innocence Matters, “The police told me they knew who did it,” a defense motion stated.
He 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, and he said, “I felt a lot of pressure to go along with it.”
The two victims had been on the street examining the scene of another shooting the night before when a car pulled up and someone opened fire.
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.”
Mvuemba is currently imprisoned on a rape conviction.
O’Connor also said Smith’s trial was undermined by ineffective assistance of attorneys who failed to investigate the case properly at trial and on appeal. She said lawyers and police often take “shortcuts” in gang cases.
“Mr. Smith was not the shooter,” the motion said. “He was not at the scene of the crime.”
Smith spent last weekend in jail after a planned hearing last Friday was postponed because the judge was ill.