Over prosecutors' objection, Baltimore judge removes exonerated man's assault conviction

A man’s nine-year effort to clear his name came to a close Thursday when a Baltimore judge — over prosecutors’ objections — removed his conviction for a shooting.

Demetrius Smith was exonerated of murder in 2013 after serving five years in prison, but a conviction in a separate but related case had remained on his record. The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office wanted it to stay that way, but Judge Barry Williams disagreed, instead imposing probation before judgment.

“There’s too much going on to leave this as is,” Williams said of Smith’s cases.

Smith, given a chance to speak at the hearing, once again declared his innocence in both cases.

“This whole situation is a mess, and all they had to do was say sorry from the beginning, when they knew they was wrong,” Smith said.

Smith’s attorney, Barry Pollack, said after the hearing that prosecutors too often seek to defend convictions rather than see justice served, calling it a “frightening problem.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Richard Gibson had initially blocked attempts by Smith to get his sentence changed, saying he had no such grounds. He conceded in a court filing last month that he was wrong, but said at Thursday’s hearing that Smith’s conviction should stay put.

Gibson, who is running for Howard County State’s Attorney, said the shooting case was a “separate charge” from the murder, “with different events, investigated by different officers.” But both cases intricately involved former Detective Charles Bealefeld, and when pressed on that point by a clearly frustrated Williams, Gibson said he was unsure.

Williams later said it was a “fact” that the cases had connections, and said it was in the interest of justice to clear Smith’s conviction.

Smith was charged in a robbery and shooting in 2008, and was released on bail. Police then charged him with murdering 36-year-old Robert Long in Southwest Baltimore.

Smith maintained his innocence, but was convicted by a jury for Long’s murder in 2010 and sentenced to life plus 18 years in prison. When the non-fatal shooting case came up, Smith agreed to plead guilty by entering an Alford plea, where a defendant maintains their innocence, but admits that sufficient evidence exists to convict them.

Federal authorities got involved in the Long murder case, and determined Smith was wrongly convicted.

They had learned through a related investigation that a man named Jose Morales, three weeks after the killing, had told his attorney, Stanley Needleman, that he had Long killed. Morales told Needleman he paid Dead Man Inc., a prison and street gang, $20,000 to carry out the killing.

Morales was arrested in Texas in 2008 with a large shipment of cocaine, and when taken into custody claimed that Needleman had arranged the killing, prosecutors said.

Morales was convicted in U.S. District Court in 2013 for ordering the killing, and in 2016, federal prosecutors charged Dead Man Inc. gang hit man Troy Lucas with committing the killing.

Lucas was also convicted, and is slated to be sentenced Friday.

After Smith was exonerated, Baltimore prosecutors agreed to change Smith’s sentence in the shooting case to time served, and conceded that there were “some issues with the facts” in that case, Pollack said. A key witness has since filed a sworn affidavit saying she wrongly identified Smith, under pressure from detectives.

Pollack said Smith has been an “exemplary citizen” since his release, but was having trouble getting jobs and housing due to the conviction.

“Every time I go for housing, this comes up,” Smith told Williams. “I gotta sit down and explain this story. They don’t want to hear all that.”

Michele Nethercott, of the University of Baltimore’s Innocence Project, said she was happy for Smith and hopes he will be able to get housing and improve his job prospects.

“It’s been a very long, long drawn out process, and it just shows the incredible difficulty in undoing convictions generally,” Nethercott said. “In this particular case, it’s such a thicket he’s had to navigate. It really to me is indicative of problems in our criminal justice system, with breakdowns at so many levels.”

jfenton@baltsun.com

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