After serving almost two decades in jail, John Edward Smith was released, exonerated of a murder he did not commit.
A Los Angeles courtroom erupted into cheers and applause on Monday, as a judge granted Smith his freedom 19 years after being convicted for a drive-by shooting. Smith, 37, has spent almost half his life in prison, but was happy to be free and return to his family.
“I’m just thankful the same system that made the error was able to find the same avenue to get me out,” Smith told the crowd of reporters who met him outside the jail Monday night. “I’m not bitter at all. That ain’t gonna get me nowhere, you know. I gotta move forward.”
Smith’s release was originally scheduled for Friday, but was delayed three more days when the judge overseeing the case called in sick. Smith was originally found guilty of the murder of a man during a drive-by shooting in 1993, and convicted based on the testimony of a survivor of the same shooting. That man, who was the only witness, recanted his testimony two years ago. A crowd that included Smith’s family and R&B star Chris Brown celebrated Smith’s release.
“I’m happy. I’m sad. But the part of me that was in there with him, I’m free now, too,” said Laura Neal, Smith’s grandmother, the woman who raised him. “I was hoping and praying that before I die he will be with me again.”
“I’m just so happy to have my brother back,” Smith’s sister told NBC Los Angeles. “My grandma’s been sick and she’s been holding on to see my brother, so this is a really big day for our family and we’re just so happy.
Smith’s case was the very first taken on by Innocence Matters, a non-profit organization that worked pro bono for three years to have Smith exonerated.
“We have a bit of a broken system and the fact that we can come in and make some systemic changes like this and help prevent it from happening to somebody else, it means the world,” said Jessica Farris of Innocence Matters.