I would like to introduce you to this man, Demetrius Smith of Baltimore, Maryland.
Last month, Demetrius Smith had the opportunity to face a judge and have his 2010 murder conviction thrown out by Judge Barry Williams. Smith spent five years in prison for a murder that he did not commit, and has spent nearly five more years trying to have the conviction removed from his record. Why? Because he is black.
On March 24th, 2008, a man named Robert Long, who was a cooperating witness in a police investigation, was shot twice in the head, execution-style. Two witnesses, a man and a female prostitute, claimed to have seen the murder and identified Smith as the murderer. Smith was promptly arrested, but at his bail hearing, Judge Nathan Braverman released Smith on $350,000 bond, saying the evidence against him was ‘skeletal’. “It was probably the thinnest case I’d ever seen,” now-retired Judge Braverman said earlier this year.
The detective, Charles Bealefeld, who had focused on Smith in the killing of Robert Long, soon went after Smith again, this time arresting him for allegedly shooting a man in the leg during a late-night robbery. His evidence? “Word on the street” was enough to send Smith back to jail. Smith lived near the victim and knew his parents … that was all Detective Bealefeld needed to know, apparently. To justify the arrest, Bealefeld found another prostitute on the street who would identify Smith from a photo array. Interestingly, Bealefeld, along with two other Baltimore officers, left the department the following year amid accusations of racial bias.
(Remember, if you will, that Baltimore is also where in April 2015, another black man, Freddie Gray, was beaten to death in an arrest over possession of a switchblade knife. None of the officers involved were convicted of his murder.)
Smith’s trial would not take place until January, 2010, during which time Smith remained in jail, continuing to claim he was innocent in both cases. In each case, the prosecution relied almost exclusively on eyewitness testimony — and in each case a key witness was a prostitute. According to The Innocence Project …
“Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.”
The male witness in the first shooting elaborated on his testimony, saying that he knew Smith to be a drug king in the neighborhood and that Smith had shot Long to send a message to any who might try to undercut him. Only problem was that the witness was a paid informant who himself had been arrested for an unrelated crime, and was set free in exchange for his testimony. And there was video camera evidence that the witness was not where he said he was at the time of the shooting. This, however, was not brought up during the trial and the information was not made available to Smith’s attorney.
The prosecutor, Rich Gibson, relied almost entirely on the eyewitness testimony of the man and the two prostitutes. A jury found Smith guilty and sentenced him to life in prison plus 18 years.
A year later, Gibson came to Mr. Smith with a deal known as an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to say for the record that he’s innocent of the crime but believes the state has enough evidence to convict him. The deal Gibson offered Smith was 10 years in exchange for a plea of guilty. Smith was hesitant, knowing he was innocent and believing that at some point his innocence would be proven and he would be exonerated. But, ten years beats life, and eventually Smith signed the agreement. Smith asked that a clause be added, an ‘escape hatch’, stating that if evidence were produced proving his innocence before the ten years, he would be released from prison. Both prosecutor Gibson and Judge Barry Williams agreed, and the deal was done.
Just a few months later, the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland had turned up Long’s real killer and informed Baltimore prosecutors that they had the wrong man. There is a long and interesting story about Long’s murder, but in the interest of time and space, suffice it to say that Long was killed because he was working with police, and it was the police who had put him in jeopardy by failing to use precautions to protect his identity. So, Smith is not guilty and all is well, right? Not quite.
Police had been advised of death threats to Long in the days leading up to his shooting, but they failed to act and they also failed to provide that information to Mr. Smith’s defense attorney – a clear violation of Smith’s constitutional rights. It was also discovered that the prostitute who testified had been six miles away at the time of the shooting. She later said that she had been bullied, coerced and threatened into her testimony by Bealefeld who kept pointing to Smith’s picture and saying, “that’s him, isn’t it?”.
Rod Rosenstein, the top federal prosecutor in Maryland at the time and now U.S. deputy attorney general, announced that the federal case had “resulted in the exoneration of an innocent man and the conviction of the real killer.” But still, Smith remained in prison because, the city of Baltimore was not willing to admit they made a mistake. The state had dropped the charges in August 2012, yet Smith sat in prison.
Smith was finally released in 2013, but the conviction remained on his record, making it impossible for him to get a job, lease an apartment, or return to a normal life. With the help of new lawyers, he went back to court to try to have the conviction removed from his record, but his old nemesis, prosecutor Gibson objected.
Again, skipping through the lengthy detail, Smith’s motion was at that time denied based on Gibson’s unexplained objection.
Last month, January 2018, Smith once again faced both Gibson and Judge Williams, and this time, finally, after nearly ten years, he was successful. Gibson, who is running for state’s attorney in another county, once again argued against removing the conviction, which he said wasn’t in the best interest of the community. This time, the judge caught Gibson in a blatant lie and called him to task. Judge Williams gave Smith a chance to tell Gibson his feelings …
“I sat in prison for five years. He [Gibson] couldn’t even look me in the face. Tell me ‘I’m sorry.’”
A happy ending for Smith? Well, it depends on one’s perspective, for yes, he is now a free and clear man, but … he lost ten years of his life for no reason except … he is black.
Smith’s case is not an isolated one. A study released in March 2017 by the National Registry of Exonerations found that black people convicted of murder or sexual assault are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be later found innocent of the crimes, and also had to wait disproportionately longer for their names to be cleared than innocent whites.
The year is 2018. Slavery ended in 1865, more than 150 years ago. The Civil Righgs movement peaked in the 1960s, more than 50 years ago. And yet even today, African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities are discriminated against by the criminal justice system and by society as a whole. This is not something we can be proud of as a nation, and I have no confidence that the situation will improve any time soon.