How One Murder Case Exposes the System

Smith's troubling ordeal, Alford plea included, is a road map of nearly every way the justice system breaks down -- and how easily a cascade of bad outcomes can be triggered by one small miscarriage of justice. Demetrius Smith’s troubling ordeal is a road map of nearly every way the justice system breaks down — and how easily a cascade of bad outcomes can be triggered by one small miscarriage of justice. (Photo: StefanieKaufmann)

The case of Demetrius Smith reads like a preposterous legal thriller: dubious arrests, two lying sex workers, prosecutorial fouls and a judge who backpedaled out of a deal.

It also delivers a primer on why defendants often agree to virtually inescapable plea deals for crimes they didn’t commit.

ProPublica has spent the past year exploring wrongful convictions and the tools prosecutors use to avoid admitting mistakes, including an arcane deal known as an Alford plea that allows defendants to maintain their innocence while still pleading guilty. Earlier this year, we examined a dozen such cases in Baltimore.

Smith’s troubling ordeal, Alford plea included, is a road map of nearly every way the justice system breaks down — and how easily a cascade of bad outcomes can be triggered by one small miscarriage of justice. For Smith, a young black man in Baltimore, it started with a questionable collar. Nine years later he’s still struggling to clear his name.  

The Arrest

Smith’s saga began in the summer of 2008 in the low-income, high-crime neighborhood in southwest Baltimore where he lived. A man named Robert Long had been shot twice in the head execution-style that March. Long was a cooperating witness in a police investigation, and the killing had all the makings of a hit.

A man and a female sex worker both claimed to have seen the murder and fingered Smith. At the time, Smith was 25 and had a record of minor drug and assault offenses. When he was arrested about three months after the murder, Smith was adamant that he had nothing to do with it.

At this point, the justice system appeared to work as it should. Smith had a bail hearing before a judge who said the prosecution’s evidence was nothing more than “skeletal allegations.” In a rare move for a murder…

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