Judge exonerates former LA gang member of murder

Associated Press Modified: September 25, 2012 at 1:46 am •  Published: September 25, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A courtroom erupted in applause, cheers and shouts of "We love you" as a former gang member imprisoned for 19 years for a murder he didn't commit was exonerated and set free Monday.

John Edward Smith, who was still in jail clothing when he appeared in court, smiled broadly, acknowledging his excited family and friends.

Adding to the Hollywood-style courtroom drama, those applauding for Smith included pop star Chris Brown, who was in the same courtroom for his probation hearing involving the 2009 beating of his then-girlfriend Rihanna.

Outside court, Smith's lawyer Deirdre O'Connor said Brown shook her hand and congratulated her.

"Thank you for your enthusiasm," Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg told the crowd as she vacated Smith's convictions for murder and attempted murder in a gang-related drive-by shooting. Prosecutors told her they were convinced that the lone eyewitness to the 1993 incident had lied at Smith's trial, naming him as the shooter. Smith always maintained he was at his grandmother's house when the shooting occurred several blocks away.

"Thank you for the opportunity to do justice," the judge told lawyers for both sides after she announced her ruling.

Smith, wearing glasses and a tan striped polo shirt, was released from a Los Angeles County jail at about 8:30 p.m. He was greeted by a host of TV cameras.

"I had good days and bad days, I stayed hopeful and that's all I could do," he told the media gathered outside the downtown jail. "I'm not bitter at all, because that ain't going to get me nowhere. I've got to move on."

He said he was looking forward to "going home and seeing my grandmother," who raised him. Family members drove him to her house, which she had mortgaged to pay for his initial defense, O'Connor said.

The grandmother, 79-year-old Laura Neal, used a walker to attend the hearing earlier in the day, and wept when Schnegg announced her decision.

"I always knew he didn't do it," Neal told reporters after court. "I'm happy and sad. But the part of me that was in there with him — I'm free now too."

She said it was difficult to wait through the weekend after Smith's hearing was delayed Friday.

"It was hell," Neal said. "Friday was a big disappointment."

Smith's lawyer, O'Connor, explained, "The closer you get to freedom, the harder it is to wait another day."

The 37-year-old Smith was 18 when he went to prison. He maintained he was at his grandmother's house with family when the shooting took place Sept. 9, 1993, in a gang-infested area.

He said he knew nothing about the crime until his mother called to tell him about it.

The only eyewitness — a victim who was shot and survived — said police pressured him to identify Smith as the shooter.

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