As Demetrius Smith was sentenced to life in prison, plus 18 years, for killing Robert Long, he told the judge he didn't do it.
"They know I didn't do this," Smith exclaimed, referring to the prosecutor and police. "They know who did it."
That was two years ago. Three weeks ago, Smith was vindicated. Citing new evidence from a federal investigation, Smith won a new trial on Aug. 1, and prosecutors quietly dropped the case against him the same day, according to online court records.
But Smith may not be set free for at least six years.
"He's not home yet, because he has a concurrent sentence," says George Smith, Demetrius Smith's father. Demetrius Smith pleaded guilty on Feb. 16 to first-degree assault in the shooting of Clyde Hendricks, which happened while Smith was on bail after being charged with Long's murder in 2008. Smith is serving 10 years for that crime, but his father says he is innocent of that as well.
"He pleaded the other case because he was already in jail and had life," says George Smith, who claims his son had worked out some kind of deal with prosecutors. "We're waiting now for the lawyer to see if the State's Attorney will keep his word."
Available records do not indicate any deal regarding the assault charge, and a spokesperson for State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein did not respond to questions about that case before press time. Bernstein spokesperson Tony Savage did confirm that the U.S. Attorney's Office "developed evidence that raised a substantial issue as to whether Demetrius Smith was the shooter of Robert Long," which state prosecutors shared with Smith's defense. "In addition to the new evidence, one of the two key witnesses in the case is now dead, and the other has recanted," says Savage.
In 2010, Smith was convicted of killing Long, who was a state's witness in multiple theft cases against another man, José Morales, for whom Long had worked. Morales, now serving 22 years on a federal drug conviction, had threatened to kill Long, but Baltimore homicide detectives did not follow those leads ("Anatomy of a Murder Trial," Feature, Feb. 24, 2010). Instead they preferred a story told by a drug addict and small-time dealer named Mark Bartlett, who said he saw Smith kill Long on the morning of March 24, 2008, shortly after he allegedly saw Long with $7,000 worth of Smith's heroin.
"All the pieces fit together," Assistant State's Attorney Richard Gibson told the jury at the trial.
But those pieces did not give the true picture. Sources familiar with the case say Morales told federal investigators last year that he hired an associate to kill Long to prevent him from testifying against him in a series of theft cases that could have sent him to prison for decades.
Morales has been indicted federally on drug-conspiracy charges, and that case has been complicated by motions regarding his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. His trial has been postponed repeatedly, in part because of "the unusual and complex nature of this case, the nature of its prosecution, the existence of novel questions of fact and law," as District Judge Roger Titus put it in a Dec. 2011 order. It is unclear whether Morales will be charged in connection with Long's murder. George Smith says he's glad his son will not be doing life for a crime he didn't do.
"I tried to explain it from the beginning, that he was not guilty of that," Smith says. "It turned out to be true. So it took some time, but in the end it worked out."