Rina Palta / KPCC
John Edward Smith, moments after walking out of law enforcement custody for the first time in 19 years. Smith was exonerated of a 1993 murder charge in an L.A. drive-by shooting.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck responded Tuesday to the case of John Edward Smith, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and attempted murder in a 1993 drive-by shooting in the Mid City neighborhood. Smith was exonerated Monday and walked out of Men's Central Jail that evening a free man for the first time in 19 years.
Smith's 1994 conviction was based on a single eyewitness identification. Months after the incident, the second victim of the drive-by, who sustained serious injuries, pegged Smith as the shooter. That witness later recanted his testimony, saying police had pressured him into fingering Smith, who was at that time a member of a street gang.
"I have been briefed on the facts of this case," Beck - who was not chief at the time of the incident - said in a statement. "As a result, I have directed Gerald Chaleff, our Special Assistant for Constitutional Policing and former criminal defense attorney, to form a team to thoroughly investigate the circumstances of this case."
Best practices around eyewitness identification have generated controversy in L.A. and elsewhere in the country. Beck recently made headlines when he declined to institute what are called "blind" lineups, where an officer unfamiliar with the case at hand (and therefore is not aware of whom police suspect in the case) administers lineups, whether in person or with photos. The "blind" practice is supposed to cut down on officers intentionally or unintentionally transfering their biases to witnesses. Beck said he preferred to have officers who work the cases, with whom witnesses are comfortable, administering lineups. The L.A. County District Attorney's office supports that position.
Nevertheless, faulty eyewitness identification has been the most common factor seen in wrongful convictions around the country, concludes the Innocence Project, a conglomerate of local projects devoted to exonerating innocent convicts.