A grateful John Edward Smith happily joined a small group of family and friends at his exoneration party Saturday, where he was welcomed with applause, cheers, and tears of relief. Smith was exonerated on Sept. 24 after spending 19 years in state prisons, most recently at Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County for a crime he did not commit.
“Thank you everyone for getting me back to my grandmother,” said the 37-year-old man. “She was the source of my faith and strength.”
In 1993, at the age of 18, Smith was convicted of murder for a gang-related drive-by shooting and was sentenced to life in prison. A key witness identified Smith as the culprit. However, Smith maintained his innocence, claiming he was at his grandmother’s house when the shooting occurred.
“I thought it was more of a joke or a wild goose chase,” Smith said. “I couldn’t believe it, actually, and I didn’t take it seriously. I went through the whole process knowing that it was going to be temporary, but once I realized my appeal attorneys weren’t doing anything it dawned on me I could be here for the rest of my life.”
Smith’s family, specifically his grandmother, who celebrated her 80th birthday at the party, worked relentlessly to overturn his conviction.
“I wouldn’t be a [good] grandma if I didn’t come,” said his grandmother with a bright smile.
“That was the hardest part,” Smith said. “Knowing what she was going through, I just had to find someone who was really going to help me. I had faith I was going to get out [if only] I could find someone to help me.”
Innocence Matters, a local nonprofit organization “dedicated to preventing wrongful convictions through education, prevention and reform, went to Smith’s rescue.
“When I first spoke with John about the case, I was immediately impressed with his sincerity,” said Deirdre O’Connor, the chair and executive director of Innocence Matters. “He openly discussed the facts without hesitation and the case just had all the markings of a wrongful conviction. It was all based on one shaky eyewitness.”
According to Innocence Matters, there were five people who could verify Smith’s alibi, including his grandmother, mother, girlfriend, cousin, and his cousin’s girlfriend. Only two of these people were interviewed and called to testify during the trial. The police did not make an effort to corroborate Smith’s alibi even when they “received leads that someone else committed the shooting.”
In 2010, Smith passed a polygraph test, confirming his innocence. Additionally, the sole eyewitness recanted his statement, claiming he felt pressured by police to implicate Smith. On Sept. 24, this information translated into Smith’s release.
“John was a gang member and did have run-ins with the law, but he grew up in a neighborhood with gang activity,” O’Connor said. “It’s hard to be in that setting and not be connected with it. But, he’s a humble guy and a remarkable individual. He was a very proactive member in establishing his innocence.”
Innocence Matters is just one organization within the Innocence Network, an affiliation of 64 organizations globally that work to help wrongfully incarcerated individuals overturn their convictions.
“Each of those projects is independent, but they all share a common mission,” said Keith Findley, the president of the Innocence Network board and the co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
In 2011, the Innocence Network helped to exonerate 21 people, ultimately characterizing the state of the bleak criminal justice system. DNA evidence helped to exonerate 11 people, while the other 10 were cleared by other means. A handful of the projects within the network are dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals solely through DNA testing, the Innocence Project in New York being one of the largest in the country. The Innocence Project was co-founded in 1992 in New York by well-known attorneys Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who were a part of OJ Simpson’s defense team. The Innocence Project is a member of the Innocence Network, and assists in DNA cases throughout the country.
The New York project, helped to exonerate Cornelius Dupree, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 30 years after being misidentified as the attacker in a 1979 Dallas-area rape and robbery. He was sentenced to 75 years in prison. Dupree’s appeals were rejected three times by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Twice they were denied because he refused to admit to being a sex offender. He also declined early release in 2004 because it required him to accept treatment, which he felt was tantamount to admitting guilt.
“Whatever your truth is, you have to stick with it,” said Dupree. DNA testing helped prove Dupree’s innocence. However, Dupree continued his quest to prove his innocence, writing letters to various people and organizations throughout the state of Texas. In 2006, the Innocence Project took up his case, and was eventually able, through forensic examination, able to establish his innocence in 2010.
Additionally, Michael Morton was exonerated after serving nearly 25 years in prison after being convicted for murdering his wife. The Innocence Project was able to prove Morton’s innocence by winning a court order to conduct DNA testing on a bloodstained bandana found near Morton’s home. The DNA on the bandana belonged to an unnamed man and Morton was soon released.
“DNA gets rid of the question of is he innocent and focuses on what went wrong,” O’Connor said.
“Common wisdom was that the criminal justice system was foolproof, but technology changed that,” Findley said. “It showed us this happens with a much higher frequency [than we thought]. It gave us a body of cases [in order] to see patterns and identify causes of wrongful convictions.”
Findley admits, “as powerful as DNA evidence is, it is only present in a small minority of criminal cases. We would miss a large majority of innocent prisoners” if it were not for projects that looked into overturning convictions by other means.
Aside from Innocence Matters, which does not deal with DNA cases, the state of California has two other organizations in the Innocence Network, including the California Innocence Project and the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University.
The Innocence Project estimates that there are about 20,000 innocent people in prison. These wrongful convictions are typically due to eyewitness misidentification, improper forensic science, false confessions, unreliable informants, ineffective defense or police misconduct.
“No one wants to fess up to wrongdoing. No one wants to admit they were wrong,” said Obie Anthony, a wrongfully convicted man released from prison last year after serving 17 years in prison. The Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law presented evidence that a key witness against Anthony lied to the jury during the trial. The project was able to convince Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Kevin Filer to overturn Anthony’s 1995 murder conviction.
“The project did a tremendous job representing their client, but I would prefer that my decision speak for itself,” said Judge Filer. “I made the decision because I thought it was the right thing to do.”
“At the end of the day, you can burn the truth. You can hide it. You can stash it or put it in water, but eventually it will rear its head and come to life,” Anthony said.
Franky Carrillo was also exonerated in 2011 with the help of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law. Carrillo served 20 years in prison for the drive-by shooting death of Donald Sarpy in Lynwood, Calif. Carrillo was only 16 years old at the time. However, his wrongful conviction was based on six eyewitness identifications, many of which were made six months after the murder.
According to the Innocence Network, the trial judge denied a witness’s request to testify that Carrillo was not at the crime scene and the defense investigator’s file included a handwritten confession from that same witness. Eventually, in March 2011, the Northern California Innocence Project was able to demonstrate through a re-creation of the crime scene that it was impossible for those individuals to identify Carrillo under the circumstances.
“I believed the system had let me down,” Carrillo said. “My father said respect people. Respect adults and they will take care of you. The system corrected itself after 20 years, but in my position I went in with the mindset that these people will do their jobs correctly. But, obviously not.”
Newly exonerated individuals have major obstacles to overcome as they readjust to their new-found freedom.
“Just spending time with family and friends was tough; I felt they were strangers,” Carrillo said. “Dating, working, driving–all of these simple things people take for granted were obstacles.
“Once the door came open, you had to readjust to society, to relationships, and to the technology advancing,” Anthony said. “It’s almost like being reborn again.”
Many would agree that Carrillo and Anthony have readjusted well. Carrillo is currently a full-time student at Loyola Marymount University, while Anthony is newly married and working in Victorville, Calif., as a forklift operator.
Upon release a year ago, Anthony was immediately hired by the American Civil Liberties Union to help campaign and advocate for the individual rights and liberties of people, while Carrillo recently ended his run as an advocate for Proposition 34. Ten days ago, on Nov. 6, voters opted to not pass Proposition 34, which would repeal the death penalty and replace it with a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
“I was very disappointed Prop. 34 didn’t pass,” Carrillo said. “I’d become the face of the campaign and to just wake up the following day and realize that for that one person that dream had been squandered was really heart-breaking. I took it very personal but I’m happy Prop. 36 [eliminating the Three Strikes law] passed.”
Even though these men were able to rebuild their lives post-incarceration, many question whether or not states should be responsible for assisting financially those newly exonerated.
“The sad irony is you get more assistance if you come out guilty than if you are innocent,” Findley said. “Compensation is usually a matter of state law and varies widely from state to state. The state of Texas provides $80,000 a year plus a variety of other assistance for wrongful incarceration. The state of Wisconsin has one of the worst compensation programs, and we are trying to change that to provide more appropriate amounts and social services, including housing, employment and healthcare.”
Twenty-seven states, including California, have compensation statutes. However, the following states do not: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.
“Theoretically, the individual could sue, but the law makes it very difficult because of various doctrines of immunity. It’s very hard to sue or obtain financial compensation under the court,” Findley said.
Anthony has a civil complaint currently pending in the court system. Carrillo also has a pending lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department.
“This time it feels good to be the plaintiff and not the defendant,” Carrillo said. “This will awaken some people [in order to] make sure it doesn’t happen again. I hope that the officers involved are reprimanded.”
Exonerees must apply for compensation, but if approved the state of California will allot exonerees $100 a day for each day spent behind bars. However, this is a long and daunting process for many newly released individuals. Carrillo said he applied for compensation and has yet to hear anything, even though it has been a little over a year since he was exonerated.
“When I was released, there was no compensation,” said Kevin Green, who spent 16 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder, attempted murder, and assault with a deadly weapon. “They did find a law where I ended up getting $620,000. The process of getting compensation, is it enough? No. It was better than nothing, but it didn’t take three years to convict me, but it took that long for them to get it to me.”
Green feels the system should be reformed to allow a judge to determine whether or not an individual deserves to be compensated, along with the amount. Additionally, Green believes these individuals should be set up with a network of financial advisers.
“If someone is handed a million dollars, is that really going to make their future brighter?” Green asked. “It didn’t take a whole lot of time before my money was gone.”
Green now resides in Jefferson City, Mo., as a car salesman.
Remarkably, many of those exonerated have little bitterness or anger about having such significant portions of their lives stolen away.
“We’ve all lived through the pity, anger, confusion, and defeat,” Green said. “We lived years with that anger and hurt with what was going on with our families and ourselves. By the time the exoneration comes, all you want to do is get along with your life. I’m not going to waste it by being pissed off.”
Carrillo believes that rather than curse the experience they should embrace it, because it has helped them mature and evolve.
“Prison life moves very slowly to the point you can see the next move play out,” Carrillo said. “It gives those in prison this unique sort of view on life and to be present in the moment. I think [Smith] shouldn’t lose that. I think there are many lessons I learned when I was incarcerated that I don’t want to surrender because I’m free.”
With the recent one-year anniversary of his exoneration, Anthony advises newly exonerated individuals like Smith to “remain determined. Their determination will couple itself with their innocence and bridge itself to their freedom,” he said.
“Stay on a path of prosperity,” Anthony said.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Smith said. “I’m trying to make it a bad memory and focus on tomorrow and what I can do tomorrow to better myself. I can’t get those 19 years back. There’s nothing they can do to make it better or to make up for it.”
Back at Smith’s exoneration party, family members gather to rejoice and celebrate his new-found freedom. Smith admits technology advancements have been some of his biggest obstacles, but he is looking forward to writing, enrolling in school, working, and mentoring others. However, with the holidays approaching he is looking forward to one thing in particular:
“My grandmother hasn’t put up a Christmas tree since I was arrested,” said Smith, who is known as somewhat of a jokester. “This year we might put up two.”