County of Conviction: San Diego
Convicted of: Murder
Sentence: 29 Years to Life
Year of Conviction: 1996

Jermaine Smothers

On May 11, 1995, Jermaine was accused of shooting and killing Ernesto Flores, a prominent member of the Mesa Locos gang.  Jermaine consistently maintained that he did not shoot and kill Ernesto.  Despite passing a polygraph examination prior to trial and despite the exceedingly unreliable eyewitnesses who claimed that they saw him shoot Flores, he was convicted of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.  The trial judge gave him a sentence of 29 years-to-life.

Jermaine’s claims of innocence fell on deaf ears until an unlikely ally appeared.  It all started in 2001 when an Oceanside Police Department homicide detective inadvertently stumbled upon evidence that Jermaine was, in fact, not the shooter in the Flores murder.  At the time, the detective was working on an unrelated homicide.  During the course of her investigation, she came into contact with several people who said that Jermaine was locked up for a crime he did not do. In 2005, she began looking further into Jermaine’s case.  Her supervising Lieutenant told her to leave the matter alone and shot down her pleas to reinvestigate Jermaine’s case.  Undeterred and convinced of Jermaine’s innocence, the detective went directly to the original prosecutor and investigating officers in the hopes that someone would do the right thing.  Unfortunately, the original prosecutor and investigating officers were defensive and nothing ever came of these efforts.

Still undeterred and in an effort to set the record straight and do the right thing, the detective dedicated the next several years to uncovering the truth about the murder.  She interviewed several witnesses who told her who the real shooter was.  Further, the critical eyewitnesses against Jermaine admitted they lied at his trial.  In 2008, the detective presented the case to the California Innocence Project, shortly before her retirement.  Since that time, both she and the California Innocence Project have jointly investigated Jermaine’s case and uncovered further evidence of innocence.  Jermaine will soon be presenting his case to the courts.

One of the hardest topics to discuss in innocence cases are gang cases.  Gangs are very scary to the general public and rightfully so.  The image they conjure is one of violence, terrorism, and death.  If gang evidence is introduced at trial against a defendant, it is almost certain that defendant will get convicted, regardless if he committed the crime charged.  It does, in a fundamental sense, completely take away the presumption of innocence and allow a jury to convict based on their fear of the defendant.

Jermaine joined the Deep Valley Crips gang in Oceanside when he was 17 years old.  There is no doubt that gang life appealed to Jermaine, who was in dire financial straits at the time and whose childhood friends had joined the gang.  Many factors can cause gang life to be appealing, especially to young men during their developing years.  Factors such as peer pressure, a lack of employment, poverty, social isolation, unstable and even violent family life, lack of self-esteem, and academic failure can all cause a young person to seek acceptance and financial stability in gang life.

Most people would not bat an eye if a gang member was convicted of something they did not do.  Given the nature of gang cases, they likely pose the highest rate of wrongful conviction.  “Good,” they might say, “one less criminal on the street.”  But is justice really served when the true culprit is left free to roam the streets?  Is justice really served when we let our fears override the facts?  Is justice served when a former gang member has been reformed in prison, is a father and a husband, and we now know who really committed the crime?  The idea that someone could ever be convicted of something they did not do should be appalling to any American and, when such a mistake is brought to light, it should be corrected.  Such is the case of Jermaine Smothers.