The Los Angeles Police Department will examine the work of two homicide detectives following a judge’s decision to vacate the murder conviction of a man they helped put behind bars.
On Monday, John Edward Smith, 37, walked out of prison a free man after spending 19 years of a life sentence incarcerated for a fatal drive-by shooting.
Smith, a former gang member, always maintained his innocence, but his claims were ignored until three years ago when an advocacy group for the wrongly convicted took up his case. A summer intern at the volunteer group Innocence Matters sent a letter to the lone witness to identify Smith as the killer, asking for a meeting to discuss the case.
Landu Mvuemba had been a 16-year-old high school student when he was injured in the 1993 drive-by shooting, but the letter reached him in a state prison where he was serving a long sentence for rape. Mvuemba agreed to the meeting in a short note written on the back of the original correspondence.
“I didn’t see anything,” Mvuemba told members of the group at the July 2010 meeting, according to a habeas corpus brief filed by Innocence Matters. He went on to say that police had pressured him into identifying Smith and detailed numerous occasions when he had tried to alert authorities to his false statements against Smith.
“The cops laid out the whole story line, telling me who did it and how. They told me other witnesses said John Smith did it,” Mvuemba told them.
In reaching her decision, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg found Smith’s conviction was based almost entirely on the coerced, perjured testimony.
On Tuesday, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he had appointed one of his senior advisors, Gerald Chaleff, to investigate the claims of coercion by police in this case. “It is something we will look into very closely,” Beck said in a brief interview. “Obviously, it is troubling when the justice system overturns itself.”
Chaleff and Beck said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the police work in Smith’s case. Chaleff declined to offer a timetable for his investigation. Beck said both of the detectives have retired from the department.
In police and court records, the lead investigator in the case is identified as Charles Block. In a department roster from 1993, Block is listed as having the rank of police officer, but in documents from the murder investigation he is listed as a detective. Michael Depasquale, a detective at the time, is also named in the police records, although his exact role in the investigation is unknown.
Depasquale said he recalled interviewing Mvuemba and denied there was any coercion. “That is not the way it happened,” he said, declining to discuss the case further. Block could not be reached for comment.
Beck and Chaleff said the department’s inquiry may include a review of other cases worked by Block and Depasquale.
Smith’s case is the second this week in which the LAPD has come under scrutiny for suspicious work by detectives. On Monday a federal appeals court ruled that another Los Angeles man who spent 19 years in prison as well for murders he did not commit will be able to sue the LAPD.
In that case, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found Harold C. Hall should be permitted to amend a legal complaint he filed against the city to allege that officers coerced his confession, which the court said was made as a result of “desperation, fear and fatigue,” in possible violation of the 5th Amendment.