LOS ANGELES — A former gang member's long-awaited exoneration was delayed Friday only hours before a scheduled hearing because of a judge's illness, leaving him to wait in prison another weekend before he is formally cleared of a murder conviction.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys were notified that a hearing for 38-year-old John Edward Smith has been delayed until Monday afternoon.
Prosecutors were prepared to seek dismissal of the case against Smith, who was convicted of murder and attempted murder in a drive-by shooting in a gang infested neighborhood of Los Angeles 19 years ago.
Smith was 18 when he went to prison. According to his lawyers, he was the victim of false testimony by the only eyewitness to the shooting.
A person with knowledge of the case in the district attorney's office said prosecutors would agree to have the conviction vacated. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the court has not dismissed the case.
Smith's exoneration was pursued by Innocence Matters, a Torrance, Calif., public interest law firm. Attorney Deirdre O'Connor, who heads the group, said the sole witness whose testimony convicted Smith recently admitted he had lied at the trial. The witness was the shooting victim who survived. He said police told him to identify Smith as the shooter.
O'Connor, who said her innocence project was formed because of her strong belief in Smith's case, said both Smith and his accuser, Landu Mvuemba, were subjected to repeated polygraph tests confirming Smith's claim of innocence.
In papers filed with the court, O'Connor reported that Mvuemba met with Innocence Matters representatives in 2010 and immediately blurted out that he had lied at the trial.
"Within the first two minutes of the interview, Mvuemba recanted," O'Connor wrote. She said the witness, who was 16 at the time of the shooting, told them, "The police told me they knew who did it."
He said they pointed to Smith, whom he had known in elementary school, and told him that other witnesses had identified Smith as the shooter. He said he was also shown a picture of his friend, DeAnthony Williams, who died in the shooting, and he said, "I felt a lot of pressure to go along with it."
Both men 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 the truth, 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," the defense motion said. "But when he saw his deceased friend's crying mother in the courtroom he felt as if he had no other choice."
O'Connor also said Smith's trial was undermined by ineffective assistance of attorneys who failed to investigate the case properly both at trial and on appeal. She said lawyers and police often take "short cuts" in gang cases.
"Mr. Smith was not the shooter," the motion said. "He was not at the scene of the crime."
Smith steadfastly maintained that he was at the home of his grandmother on Sept. 9, 1993, and knew nothing about the crime until his mother called to tell him about it.
While many prisoners have been exonerated in recent years through innocence projects, gang cases are among the most difficult, according to Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor who works with that university's innocence project.
"Gang members are easy targets," she said. "They are the usual suspects. This is a story we hear repeatedly. Witnesses say what they think authorities want to hear. It's terrifying to see people wrongly convicted but also to see the carnage on our streets. Police react to that carnage."
O'Connor credited the district attorney's office with working to get the truth once they became aware of the case.
As for Smith, O'Connor said he wants to get a job and start his life anew.