An Eastern Shore man who spent nearly 21 years in prison for a murder he said he did not commit walked free this week, a year after Maryland’s highest court tossed out his conviction.
Jonathan Smith Sr., 50, of Easton, left the Talbot County Department of Corrections on Wednesday, smiling beneath a facemask as his oldest son, Jonathan, lifted him up in a bear hug outside the facility. The scene was captured in a photo distributed by the Innocence Project, whose attorneys are representing Smith.
Smith had been serving a life sentence for the brutal 1987 murder of 64-year-old Adeline Curry Wilford in her farmhouse outside Easton. When Maryland’s Court of Appeals threw out his conviction in 2020, they did not free him but instead ordered a new trial.
On Wednesday, Smith entered a conditional Alford Plea in Talbot County Circuit Court, sidestepping a trial while winning his freedom and retaining the right to keep fighting for exoneration. Under an Alford Plea, a defendant maintains he is innocent but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence that he could be found guilty at trial.
The judge accepted Smith’s plea and sentenced him to the time he already served, plus five-years probation.
Joseph Michael, deputy state’s attorney in Washington County, who was specially assigned to the case, said that despite past issues with the case, Smith is guilty of the murder. He cited evidence such as Smith’s confession and testimony by his co-defendant.
“He’s guilty and that’s the important thing here. The case was not a perfect case. He served 21 years. That’s not enough given the heinous nature of this crime,” Michael said in an interview Friday.
Wilford’s youngest daughter wrote in a victim impact statement that, “This tragedy and continuing ridiculous litigation has cut a hole so deep within me, and has truly devastated to no end my family and me. It is a memory forever etched in my mind.”
She blamed the Innocence Project, for “putting our family through endless and worthless litigation,” the statement said.
Attorneys with the Innocence Project said his release was long overdue.
“Today, after more than two decades fighting for his innocence, Mr. Smith will reunite with his family and friends,” said Susan Friedman, Smith’s attorney from the Innocence Project, in a statement. “Mr. Smith continues to steadfastly maintain his innocence and is hopeful that he will receive the justice he deserves.”
Smith will continue appeals and his quest to clear his name, his attorneys said.
“Mr. Smith’s decision to enter into this plea is based upon his contention that his ability to present a full defense at any retrial has been permanently prejudiced as a result of the State’s intentional, willful and/or reckless misconduct and that, as a result, he can no longer obtain a fair trial in this case,” according to a statement from the Innocence Project this week.
The Alford Plea comes after the Maryland Court of Appeals threw out Smith’s conviction, citing a palm print that implicated a different man, and information that discredited the state’s witness tying Smith and two other men to the scene.
Smith and a co-defendant, David Faulkner, 56, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. A third defendant, Ray Andrews, who was 16 at the time of the murder, testified against Smith and Faulkner, entering an Alford plea to involuntary manslaughter and serving a 10-year prison sentence.
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There was no physical evidence linking the three men to the crime.
At the time of the murder, police found a palm print on a window propped open in the utility room of Wilford’s home. The investigators suspected the killer climbed in to burglarize the home while Wilford was out, but was caught by surprise when she returned home from a trip to the bank.
In 2013, new attorneys for the men petitioned the court to run the palm print located at Wilford’s home through Maryland’s print database. When a state police fingerprint expert examined the suspected burglar’s palm print, he discovered it belonged to another man not charged in the crime.
In addition, the defense team discovered recorded conversations between a witness who identified the men and police in which she demanded drug charges be dismissed against her grandson in exchange for her testimony against Smith and Faulkner.
She also threatened “to reveal to jurors that she had been diagnosed with ‘an extensive emotional and psychological problem,’” the Court of Appeals opinion said.
Faulkner’s conviction also was thrown out under the Court of Appeals opinion, and he was released earlier this year after his case was placed on the inactive docket.
This article has been updated. An earlier version misstated the evidence the Maryland Court of Appeals cited in a 2020 opinion that helped free Jonathan Smith; the opinion cited palm print evidence. Susan Friedman’s law firm was also misidentified; she is an attorney with the Innocence Project. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.