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The Shocking Truth: How a Man Spent 5 Years in Jail for Crimes He Didn't Commit
How the ‘thinnest case ever’ put an innocent man behind bars.
The case of Demetrius Smith, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and first-degree assault and spent over five years in prison, is a somber reminder of the flaws in our criminal justice system. Smith’s story underscores how a miscarriage of justice can happen to anyone—and it almost always carries devastating consequences for the innocent.
Thankfully, in Smith’s case, the state of Maryland has finally offered some form of restitution by approving a settlement worth more than $340,000.
From The Associated Press:
A man wrongly convicted of two separate violent crimes will be compensated by the state of Maryland after spending years behind bars, including over a year after he had been proven innocent.
A Maryland board approved more than $340,000 for a settlement on Wednesday in compensation for Demetrius Smith who was wrongly convicted of murder and first-degree assault and spent more than five years in prison.
Gov. Wes Moore, who chairs the three-member Board of Public Works, apologized to Smith before the board approved the settlement, noting that it’s been more than a decade since his release in 2013.
“We’re here today more than 10 years after he was released from incarceration, providing Mr. Smith with long overdue justice that he was deprived of, an apology from the state of Maryland that until today he’s never received,” Moore told Smith, who attended the hearing in person.
Gov. Wes Moore explained that the judge presiding over Smith’s bail hearing noted that the case was “probably the thinnest case” he had ever seen. Nevertheless, “the prosecution was determined to press forward, relying on testimony from a witness who was later found to have not even been at the scene of the crime,” according to the governor.
The very fact that Smith’s story exists should be cause for alarm. In 2010, Smith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, plus 18 years. Had he been given the death penalty instead, the irrevocable mistake could have led to the extinguishing of an innocent life.
The fact that the prosecution chose to move forward with such a weak case should raise red flags for Americans concerned about the criminal justice system. Indeed, while much of the focus on corruption centers on police officers who abuse their authority, many prosecutors do the same thing — pushing to convict innocent people to boost their conviction rates.
While our system may be successful in prosecuting and sentencing the majority of actual violent offenders, it is not foolproof. Studies have shown that the wrongful conviction rate is not trivial; according to a 2014 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about 1 in 25 people sentenced to death is likely innocent. Given the irreversible nature of the death penalty, these are unacceptable odds.
In Smith’s case, the prosecution relied on faulty witness testimony, not once but twice. First, for the murder case, the prosecution leaned on a witness who was later found to have not even been at the scene of the crime. And again, for the assault case, they used witnesses who later recanted their testimony. The system failed Smith twice, yet he was fortunate to have escaped the death penalty, which, in its finality, offers no room for redress.
Indeed, Smith was fortunate that he was not sentenced to death, as his story adds to a growing body of evidence highlighting the very real potential for catastrophic mistakes in our justice system. What Smith’s ordeal should tell us is that while we may trust the justice system to get it right most of the time, “most of the time” isn’t good enough—especially when lives are at stake.
The Demetrius Smith case serves as a poignant reminder that our justice system is very fallible, and the consequences of its mistakes can be irreversible. As society grapples with questions about the death penalty, criminal justice reform, and bias, it is crucial to remember that the cost of getting it wrong is far too high.
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