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The cascading effect of one wrongful conviction

by | Jan 14, 2018 | Wrongful Convictions

ProPublica has produced some great work in the past year on the tragic consequences of prosecutors who are hell-bent on convicting individuals of crimes even when the evidence is thin or clearly suspect.

Few stories portray the maddening downward spiral an unjust criminal justice system can have on an individual’s life more than the account in ProPublica by reporter Megan Rose, Twitter @MegMcCloskey, recounting the wrongful conviction of Demetrius Smith in 2010. Not only was Smith wrongfully convicted of murder, his understandable lack of faith in the criminal justice system resulted in a plea agreement to a separate shooting that has compounded the injustice against him even after he was exonerated of the murder conviction.

As ProPublica’s Rose states, “The case of Demetrius Smith reads like a preposterous legal thriller: dubious arrests, two lying prostitutes, prosecutorial fouls and a judge who backpedaled out of a deal.”

A Good Start Turns Bad

It’s worth reading Rose’s full story to completely understand how demoralizing a broken justice system can be. One of the most unfortunate aspects of Smith’s experience is that, initially, the system seemed to work as it should. Smith was released on bond by Baltimore District Judge Nathan Braverman, who called the prosecution’s case “the thinnest case I’d ever seen.”

But the system eventually reverted to the unjust process that continues to be exposed through horrid accounts like Smith’s and thousands like it. A detective who disagreed with Braverman’s assessment of the evidence arrested Smith about a month later for a non-fatal shooting. According to the ProPublica story, Smith told his lawyers the detective, Charles Bealefeld, admitted during the arrest that he knew Smith didn’t commit the second shooting.

A Bad Arrest Begets A Bad Plea Agreement

In January 2010, Smith went on trial for the murder, with the prosecution relying on the same evidence that Braverman found so unconvincing. Despite the fact it was shown a key supposed eyewitness was not at the scene of the murder at all, Smith was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

When the matter of the second shooting came up a year later, Smith reluctantly agreed to a plea agreement that came with a sentence of 10 years to be served concurrently with his life sentence. Smith’s Alford plea allowed him to state for the record that he was innocent of the second shooting, but he believes the state has enough evidence to convict him.

Because he was confident he would eventually be exonerated for the murder conviction, Smith built into his plea agreement that if he was cleared of murder and no longer serving a life sentence, he could revisit the Alford plea for the second shooting. This would prevent him from serving a 10-year sentence for yet another crime he did not commit.

An investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland eventually turned up the real killer and the state ultimately dropped the murder case against Smith. However, the state went back on its agreement to revisit Smith’s plea on the second shooting despite the fact the evidence in this case was just as weak as the murder case. It agreed to modify Smith’s sentence to time served (five years at this point), but he would have a felony conviction on his record that negatively impacted his ability to find work.

Smith is free, but continues to pursue a means to clear his record. The next possible step, Rose reports, in her Dec. 4, 2017 article, would be for Smith to apply for a rare pardon from the governor.

As Rose states, Smith couldn’t get a fair deal from the state even when the investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office seemingly should have caused prosecutors to concede mistakes. As Michele Nethercott, head of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore Law School, told Rose, “What’s so striking about Demetrius’ case is there are very few times when you come in with an innocence claim that’s supported, endorsed and proven by the Unites States government. If that doesn’t move people, it’s hard to see what would.”

Another Chance?

Well, perhaps a ProPublica article can be more persuasive in this case than the federal government, because after the Dec. 4 publication of Rose’s story, the state’s prosecutor reversed course. In a motion filed three weeks after publication, the prosecutor admitted he erred in opposing Smith’s request for a hearing in his effort to reverse his conviction on the Alford plea. The prosecutor, Rich Gibson’s motion in Baltimore City Circuit Court states that during the initial agreement hearing the state did “relinquish its ability to block the motion.” Therefore, he asked the court to schedule a hearing so the “court can rule as it determines proper.”

The judge has scheduled a hearing in Smith’s case for Jan. 18.

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