In 1993, John Edward Smith was a gang member. That's probably, his attorney said, why he was convicted of a murder he didn't commit. Smith spent 19 years in prison for murder and attempted murder in a Mid City drive-by shooting that claimed the life of 16-year-old DeAnthony Williams and left Landu Mvuemba critically injured. Months later, Mvuemba identified Smith as the shooter and eventually testified against him in court. Mvuemba later recanted his testimony, telling attorneys he felt pressured by police to peg Smith.
On Monday, L.A. Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg vacated Smith's conviction, bringing an end to a two-year legal process.
"We had no idea it would take that long," said Deirdre O'Conner, Smith's attorney, and founder of Innocence Matters, a non-profit in Torrance devoted to freeing inmates who've been wrongfully convicted.
"People don't understand that the closer you get to freedom, the harder it is to wait another second, another minute, another day," O'Conner said.
Yet that's what Smith and his attorneys had to do. Smith was supposed to appear in court last week, but the judge in his case was sick. When his exoneration hearing finally happened, the minutes ticked by as reporters haggled with the judge over permission to shoot video of the next defendant on the docket. R&B singer Chris Brown.
Smith's grandmother, Laura Neal, sat patiently in the courtroom, even as her apparent serenity masked what that wait was really like: "Hell," she said later.
Neal visited her grandson regularly in prison near the Salton Sea. That trip has gotten harder for her since she became ill in recent years. Now, Smith is heading home.
"I'm happy, I'm sad. But the part of me that was in there, too," Neal said. "I'm free now, too. I'm free."
Hours after she spoke, Smith walked out of Men's Central Jail - free for the first time in almost two decades. He said a lot helped him through the experience, but one fact stood out.
"Knowing I was innocent," Smith said. "You know. And believing that someday somebody would put that out for me."
O'Conner said Smith is not the only one in that situation.
"We have clients right behind him coming up," she said. "We feel good about it and we're looking forward to a long history of helping other people."
Smith, who's 37 years old now, plans to live with his grandma and spend time with his family as he figures out what to do with the rest of his life.