To give you some idea of just how long Larry Darnell Smith Jr. sat in prison for a murder he did not commit, consider that he can remember where he was — the Wayne County Jail — that night in 1994 when O.J. Simpson led police on a slow-speed chase on a Los Angeles freeway. Then, when terrorists brought the World Trade Center down on Sept. 11, 2001, he was sweeping the floors of the Saginaw Correctional Facility. And that bright 2009 morning when America inaugurated its first Black president? He was at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, thinking about how under other circumstances he would’ve been in Washington, D.C., to see it while working for his uncle’s limousine service.
Smith went in at 18 and came out at 45. Yet for his 46th birthday in late August — his first as a free man in his adult life — he and his long-suffering 66-year-old mother, Debra Smith, flew to Boston where, on behalf of the National Organization of Exonerees, he met with local prosecutors to talk about the Wayne County program that led to his redemption. The night before, he attended a picnic in Detroit with about 20 other exonerees where Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy praised his activism since his release in February.
There’s a lot of interest these days in what Wayne County is doing to right some of the justice system’s most egregious wrongs, and folks like Smith don’t want to waste precious time celebrating while innocent people continue to rot in American prisons. Since 2018, investigations undertaken by the newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit, or CIU, have led to the release of 30 men whom Worthy and the Michigan courts now agree should not have been convicted for the crimes that sent them away. CIUs are special units of lawyers and detectives empowered to reinvestigate questionable convictions and provide a fast-track process to clear and liberate wrongly convicted inmates.
“We weren’t the first CIU in the country, but I know now that we’re the most active,” Worthy says. Other experts concur; Maurice Possley, a researcher with the National Registry of Exonerations, told CNN earlier this year the pace of exonerations in Wayne County is “unheard of.”
In total, those 30 men — almost all Black — spent 465 years in prison hoping against hope that someone one day would believe their version of events. And then, almost like a thunderbolt, someone did. “The court told me to die in prison about 90 days before they came out with this CIU,” Smith says, referring to the defeat of his final appeal of his sentence of natural life for murder. “The courts shut me down from my last shot. It was over with. It was over with. My life was over. I was gonna die in prison. And then I wasn’t.”
Until about 20 years ago, the world of proving and litigating wrongful convictions was the province of investigative journalists and crusading defense attorneys. Each time it was shown that an innocent convict had lost a heartbreaking chunk of his or her life to a judicial error, there would be big newspaper articles and Dateline reenactments — but most of these cases were treated by the public as unique, unfortunate mistakes and tragic curiosities.
Yet as organizations like the national nonprofit Innocence Project formed and became better funded and with the advent of the use of DNA evidence to force the reconsideration of old convictions, the number of reversals kept rising. Since 2012, in fact, more than 100 convicts have been exonerated and released each year, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which is a joint project of the Newkirk Center for Science and Society at the University of California Irvine and the law schools at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. In all, 2,840 people had been cleared as of this spring across the U.S. of murders, rapes, robberies, drug offenses, and other crimes since 1989 — more than half of those in the past decade — accounting for more than 25,000 years of unnecessary prison service.
The outrageousness of that, along with other movements to expose an American judicial process rife with systemic racism and ignominious for fostering the world’s largest inmate population, softened the public and encouraged lawmakers in both parties to seek reforms. It helped that so many exonerees like Smith burst out of prison with great purpose to help other innocent convicts reclaim their freedom, says Marvin Zalman, who teaches criminal justice at Wayne State University and is the author of numerous books and papers on wrongful convictions. “They’ve organized into an Innocence Network,” he says. “They interact. They have annual meetings. They have exonerated thousands of people, many of whom have become activists. Then you get more and more lawyers aware of the fact that wrongful convictions occur with some regularity, so they begin to push cases.”
One such lawyer was Worthy, who began taking interest in the concept of CIUs shortly after she became Wayne County prosecutor in 2004. Around that time, she attended a meeting in Atlanta of Black elected prosecutors where Craig Watkins, then the district attorney in Dallas, talked about his idea to have his own staff reinvestigate some questionable convictions. As prosecutors of color, Worthy says, the group was empathetic to the flaws in the justice system that lead to mass incarceration of Black people, mostly men, including many whose trials might have gone differently with better legal representation and a fairer assessment by juries.
“I said back then that no prosecutor should be afraid to have such a unit,” she says. “It can be scary, of course, and not easy to do. And so, basically, I had that in the back of my mind and around 2008 started really pushing for it.”
It would take nearly another decade, though, for Worthy to persuade the Wayne County Commission to put up the first $750,000 needed to launch the CIU. And when she did, she shocked many by hiring as its director one of the state’s most ferocious wrongful conviction crusaders, appellate attorney Valerie Newman. “I wanted it to be someone that came in from the outside,” Worthy says. “Valerie Newman was really our biggest nemesis in a couple of cases in this area. She’d been doing the work; she was nationally recognized. People thought I was absolutely insane when I hired her.”
In innocence advocate circles, however, Newman’s selection gave the effort instant credibility. Smith, skeptical of the notion that the same office that convicted him and defended that conviction would now take a new look at his case, was reassured by activist Claudia Whitman, founder of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network: “She says to me, ‘Larry, this ain’t no joke. Miss Valerie Newman is down there and she’s gonna be leading this. And she’s going to look at it.’ And at that moment, it was like, wow.”
Newman made a key early decision to enhance the unit’s credibility — she would choose only lawyers who had never served as Wayne County prosecutors. That way, she says, nobody could be accused of being too close to a case or to anyone who handled it. She has two full-time and two part-time lawyers, one full-time and one part-time detective, and a part-time law student who help her work through a backlog of some 40 open cases at any given moment.
Each year, she receives about 500 requests from Michigan inmates convicted in Wayne County who want their cases reconsidered; she looks in their material for something obvious that the initial police investigation and prosecution missed or ignored. “For example, you’re convicted of a crime, you write to me, and you say, ‘Look, I told my lawyer I had three alibi witnesses, and my lawyer never talked to these alibi witnesses,’” Newman says. “We looked through the appeals, we read everything, we see this issue was never litigated. So that’s new.”
Since Worthy created this CIU, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, elected in 2018, has followed suit to investigate questionable convictions in other parts of the state, and prosecutors in Oakland and Macomb counties are talking about creating their own. Zalman says the movement — there are about 90 CIUs across the country — is fueled primarily by the election of progressive prosecutors like Nessel who run on platforms of correcting systemic problems such as those created by a rush to “solve” cases, which can result in grievous mistakes.
That the CIU is an internal prosecutorial unit is, in many ways, its superpower, Zalman says. Whereas defense attorneys must work through the courts to demand access to police files and evidence when trying to clear a client, the CIU “can get data without having to jump through hoops. They can get cooperation or help from the police, where defense attorneys who were handling an appeal, even if they’re not getting enormous resistance, they’re still going through procedures that take time.”
The Wayne County CIU’s first exoneration, which came five months after Newman’s hire, was Richard Phillips. Phillips was serving his 45th year in 2018 on a murder conviction when Newman brought to Worthy’s attention that a co-defendant had said during a parole hearing that he committed the crime with someone else. Without the CIU’s intervention, Phillips, who at age 73 upon his release was the nation’s longest-serving exoneree, might have tried to reengage the courts with a new appeal, but that could have taken years. This way, Worthy took Newman’s dossier directly to a judge empowered to vacate such wrongful convictions.
“That one probably affected me the most because it was the first one,” Worthy says. “What if there are other people out there who have served that long for crimes they didn’t commit? I apologized to him at a press conference even though I didn’t have anything to do with convicting him, because the system failed him. This is exactly why we established the unit, to get people out of prison like him.”
The expedited process for clearing cases through the court, which was a mechanism created by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack along with then-Justice Stephen Markman, helps explain the impressive pace of exonerations, Newman says. “We have a variety of tools at our disposal that other states don’t have,” she says. “Especially in Wayne County, we have a committed bench. That might sound silly — like, what judge would not care about justice or wanting to do the right thing or sign an order to get an innocent person out of prison? But there are jurisdictions where judges fight these things tooth and nail.”
“This moment you and I are having right now? It’s really not real,” says Larry Smith as he sits in a crisp new red-and-blue-striped polo shirt sipping a can of Squirt on the narrow porch of his mother’s home in Detroit’s Boynton neighborhood. His daughter, Eakira Bullard, who was a toddler when her father went to prison, sits next to him. His hunched-over mother comes and goes offering drinks and pithy observations. Bernard Howard, whose own murder conviction was cleared by Newman’s CIU in 2020 after he served 26 years, is in the front yard working a phone camera as Smith tells his story yet again, capturing footage that may eventually end up on Smith’s very active Facebook page.
Smith is talking about how poorly he’s been sleeping, how he often wakes up thinking he’s still in prison and must calm and reassure himself that that nightmare has passed. It’s mid-June, so he’s been free for about five months and is trying very hard to believe that. “This is a dream. I’ve had this dream before over 27 years, that I will be free and have opportunities like this. So if it’s real, if it’s not real, I don’t want to do anything to mess it up.”
The tedium and frustration of being wrongly jailed for decades is hard to comprehend, but this may provide a sense of how that yawning gap of time was filled. Here is Smith’s account of a quarter-century tour of Michigan nobody ever wants to go on: “I went from the Wayne County Jail to Riverside quarantine to Riverside general population. Riverside sent me to the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia. Michigan Reformatory sent me to Chippewa, which is in the Upper Peninsula. Chippewa sent me to the Muskegon facility. Muskegon sent me to the Macomb facility. The Macomb facility sent me to the Mound Road facility in Detroit. Mound Road sent me to the Saginaw Correctional Facility. Saginaw sent me to Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer. Lapeer sent me to the Cotton Correctional Facility. The Cotton Correctional Facility sent me to Carson City Correctional Facility in Jackson. Carson City sent me to the Adrian Correctional Facility. Adrian sent me to the Michigan State Prison in Jackson. Jackson sent me to Coldwater Correctional Facility. Coldwater sent me back to Adrian. Adrian sent me back to Lapeer. Lapeer sent me back to Mound. Mound sent me back to the Michigan Reformatory. Michigan Reformatory sent me back to Mound. Mound sent me to Macomb. Macomb sent me to Brooks in Muskegon Heights. Brooks would then send me to Ionia. Ionia sent me to St. Louis. St. Louis sent me to Kinross. Kinross sent me to Chippewa. Chippewa sent me to Cotton. Cotton sent me to Adrian. I would go home from Adrian.”
Before all that, Smith was a teenager with a 1978 Monte Carlo, a job in Southfield delivering oxygen tanks, and some plans. Butter, as his mother still calls him because he had jaundice as a chubby kid, was making such good grades that he’d traveled to East Lansing to check out Michigan State. He expected to go to school to become a respiratory therapist en route, perhaps, to medical school to be an anesthesiologist. Debra Smith says he was careful not to get mixed up in the street partly because his own father, Larry Sr., was shot to death in 1984.
Yet in March 1994, months before he would have graduated from high school, police arrested Smith in connection with the slaying of a 20-year-old drug dealer named Kenneth Hayes in the early morning hours near the Smiths’ house. An eyewitness claimed to have seen someone of Smith’s build running from the scene, the police said they found bullet casings in Smith’s laundry hamper, and a jailhouse informant testified Smith confessed to
the crime. Smith’s mother maintains her son was in his basement bedroom all night while she worked into the wee hours on a presentation for a class that was part of the master’s degree in psychology that she was pursuing. Her son was convicted that November.
Smith lost appeal after appeal throughout his decades in prison — often on grounds that had nothing to do with whether the “evidence” or testimony was legitimate. In 2017, for instance, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman shut his case down in large part because the claims had been filed too late. Later that year, though, the Detroit Metro Times ran a damning investigative report that called into question the Detroit Police Department’s questionable use of jailhouse informants and the enticements they received that encouraged them to provide testimony alleging that other inmates had confessed.
Newman knew all about such sketchy police work, having spent her pre-CIU career litigating other wrongful convictions in Wayne County. She entered the job with experience and a skepticism that has proven invaluable, Zalman says. “I can answer the question as to why the Wayne County CIU is so successful in two words: Valerie Newman,” he says. “The literature shows that the most successful conviction integrity units are those that hire effective defense lawyers to be their directors. Detroit probably has a high number of exonerations simply because we have excellent lawyers in CIU who are looking for them. If you dug down in other places, you’d also get a lot.”
Although Smith is in the National Registry as an exoneree and Worthy herself has referred to him as one from time to time, technically he was not proven innocent so much as ordered a new trial that Worthy elided by dropping his charges and setting him free. Between the expose on the use of informants and the fact that the bullet casings supposedly found in Smith’s hamper had been destroyed years ago for unknown reasons, there was no point to another trial. That’s how 17 of the 30 men got their liberty. Often, Worthy says, that’s the best the CIU can do for people because “we have the evidence to say that their trial was so compromised that if the jury had known all the evidence that we were able to uncover, they might have found that they didn’t do it.”
It took Smith’s case three years to lead to his release in part because Newman was so overwhelmed with other cases, ones that would be easier to clear with less investigation. During that time, Smith’s mother would meet Worthy at public events and remind her of her son’s plight. Larry Smith recalls: “I was hopeful. I had three interviews with them. One by video, two by phone. And man, I was nervous. Any time you’re in a room with people who have the power to let you go, you got to be nervous. But I was thinking, ‘These people have to know that I didn’t do this because they wouldn’t be talking to me like this right now.’”
Worthy issued a statement upon Smith’s release. “After a thorough review of the investigation and evidence in this case we have determined that Mr. Smith certainly is entitled to a new trial,” she wrote. “We found that the Detroit Police Department’s informant was unreliable as well as the testimony of a key witness. There were other issues as well.”
The Smiths are still adjusting to their new reality. Debra Smith’s home overflows with notes, cards, and mementos her son sent her over the years from prison. “You know, 27 years of birthdays and Mother’s Days and ‘I love you’ days, they accumulate,” she says as she shuffles through the living room. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching artifact is an undated letter he wrote her early in his incarceration. “Remember when the prosecutor offered me the zero-to-five … when I told you I didn’t know who did the crime and they wanted me to lie?” he wrote. “You looked me in the eyes, said take it in stride, like a man, don’t go against what’s right.”
Debra Smith insists she’s determined “not to worry about nothing no more” — but she’s still angry. Her son is living with her and hustling for a few dollars by selling decorative candles while he waits for the state to decide whether to compensate him for his lost years. In 2016, the Michigan Legislature created the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund with guidance that folks like Smith should receive $50,000 per year in prison, so Smith eventually could receive more than $1 million.
“What he might get later on has nothing to do with what he has got now,” Debra Smith says, her voice rising. “He has to live now. They have done nothing financially to help him. He should have his own place. He should have money to go in his pocket because he’s a man. He shouldn’t have to look for his mother or maybe a relative to throw him a couple dollars. They should have something in place for these people that’s coming out of prison that you exonerating because you know that they didn’t do it. It’s your fault that it took them that long to figure that out, because it was there all the time.”
There are efforts underway, both from the nonprofit sector and by Worthy’s office. Worthy is pushing for local community colleges to provide free tuition for those released and is talking with private employers in the region about how they can help. Another Wayne County CIU exoneree, Aaron Salter, has raised money to renovate a house with two beds for exonerees to stay at after their release. His organization, Innocence Maintained, helps newly released people obtain “IDs, birth certificates, basically whatever they need to get back to society and get them to their compensation without people exploiting them, without them having to be in places where you know they feel uncomfortable,” Salter says. “Basically, just hold their hands.”
In the meantime, Smith is running all over the state and country singing Newman’s praises and pushing for more funding to help her get more people freed faster. “They’re understaffed, they’re underfunded. How can three people, three investigators, maybe five, move to these cases effectively and efficiently?” Smith asks. “Yeah, they have a system. It’s a great system. Know how I know? I’m sitting here talking to you now. I have friends that are exonerees who I walked the yard with. … Now we’re in society, and we’re working to help other innocent people, medically frail people, oversentenced people. We work together as a unit to do this. But if it wasn’t for the CIU, we wouldn’t have had this opportunity. So it’s clear. They need more funding, because you get to produce more people like me.”
The case of Larry Darnell Smith Jr. is only one of 30 wrongful convictions reversed by the work of the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit since its inception in 2017. Smith, at 27 years, was also one of the longest-serving innocent convicts. Here is a sampling
of other cases:
Convicted of first-degree murder at age 19. Served 16 years. New evidence: An eyewitness who had not previously testified; discredited testimony from a jailhouse informant. His case
was dismissed on Feb. 18, 2021.
Convicted of first-degree murder at age 21. Served 47 years (22 more than sentenced). New evidence of innocence could not be corroborated by the CIU, but given conflicting information about his involvement in the shooting, he was offered a plea to second-degree murder. His case was dismissed on May 25, 2021.
Convicted of possession of 450 to 999 grams of cocaine at age 31. Served 7 years. New evidence: False statements had been used to obtain a search warrant. His case was dismissed on March 24, 2020.
Convicted of first-degree murder at age 19. Served 25 years. New evidence: An eyewitness who had not previously testified discredited testimony from a jailhouse informant. His case was dismissed on Feb. 20, 2020.
Convicted of second-degree murder at age 27. Served eight years. New evidence: testimony from a new witness who had not previously come forward and who arrived at the scene with Khalil after the victim was shot. His case was dismissed on July 13, 2020.
Convicted of first-degree murder at age 18. Served 26 years. New evidence: An analysis of crime scene fingerprints, paired with a years-long investigation into police interrogation practices in 1994, proved that Howard’s confession was false and that aspects of a co-defendant’s confession that incriminated Howard were also false. His case was dismissed
on Dec. 17, 2020.
Convicted of assault with intent to commit murder, criminal sexual conduct, and armed robbery at age 33. Served 28 years. New evidence: proof that he was misidentified. His case was dismissed on Jan. 13, 2020.
Convicted of first-degree murder at age 20. Served 17 years. New evidence: A key identifying witness gave false testimony; police misconduct. His case was dismissed
on April 21, 2020.
Convicted of first-degree murder at age 20. Served 17 years. New evidence: A key identifying witness gave false testimony; police misconduct. His case was dismissed
on April 21, 2020.
Convicted of second-degree murder and felony firearm at age 21. Served 24 years. New evidence: DNA disproved testimony from a jailhouse informant. His case was dismissed on Sept. 30, 2020.
Convicted of first-degree murder and felony firearm at age 21. Served almost 19 years. New evidence: police misconduct. His case was dismissed on Oct. 1, 2020.
Convicted of multiple counts of attempted murder in a gas station bombing at age 21. Served almost 12 years. New evidence: A key identifying witness was paid; a new witness stated Isho did not throw the bomb. His case was dismissed on Nov. 24, 2020.
Convicted of armed robbery and assault at age 20. Served nine years. New evidence: A new witness, who was also the perpetrator; video evidence showing Anderson had earlier been shot and could not have committed this crime. His case was dismissed on April 30, 2019.
Convicted of armed robbery and carjacking at age 18. Served two years. New evidence: Phone and other records from electronic devices as well as a witness all placed Cash out of town at the time of the crime. His case was dismissed on May 28, 2019.
Convicted of first-degree murder at age 20. Served 32 years. New evidence: Multiple new witnesses placed Burton at a motel miles from the crime scene when the incident occurred. His case was dismissed on Dec. 6, 2019.
Convicted of first-degree murder at age 31. Served more than 45 years. New evidence: His co-defendant said he committed the crime with someone else. His case was dismissed on March 28, 2018.
This story is featured in the October 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.