10-year-old Forsyth assault conviction questioned
Nearly 100 people crowded inside an ordinary multipurpose room at Winston-Salem’s Emanuel Baptist Church on Nov. 14 and lifted their voices in song.
The occasion was the appearance – the first for the general public – of law professor James Coleman, who has been leading the campaign to free imprisoned Winston-Salem resident Kalvin Michael Smith. The a capella tune, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” preceded a parade of local civil rights leaders representing the political and religious coalition that has been fighting for a review of Smith’s case. The Winston-Salem Ministers Conference and the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice organized the forum.
Smith was convicted almost 10 years ago in a high-profile assault case in which the victim, Jill Marker, was beaten nearly to death at the Silk Plant Forest, a shop in the Silas Creek Shopping Center where she worked. She was five months pregnant at the time and later gave birth to a healthy baby while still in intensive care at Wake Forest Baptist hospital.
“I have no doubt at all that Michael is innocent,” Coleman said. “I am absolutely sure he had no part in the crime he is accused of committing.”
Coleman is the faculty advisor to the Innocence Project at Duke University School of Law. He and his students have been reviewing Smith’s case, which Coleman said was mishandled by police investigators and prosecutors.
At the forum, Coleman blamed a Crime Stoppers press release for confusing the public about the attack. Three days after the attack, the group released a bulletin identifying a black male seen running from the store as a prime suspect.
“It was the only time the police ever identified the race of a suspect,” Coleman said.
In fact, the prime suspect at that time was a white man, Kenneth Lamoureux, who had been released from a psychiatric ward the day before the attack and knew Marker through her previous job at a preschool.
The Crime Stoppers press release inspired one of Smith’s scorned lovers to call police and implicate him in the crime. After police dead-ended in their investigation of Lamoureux, they turned their attention to Smith. They rounded up his friends, who implicated him in the crime, and a grand jury indicted Smith in the beating.
Throughout his trial and imprisonment, Smith has maintained his innocence. Coleman has become his most outspoken champion. Darryl Hunt, who was imprisoned for 19 years for a murder he did not commit, has also pledged the resources of his foundation.
Coleman passed out copies of testimony by Eugene Littlejohn, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses. In the transcript, Littlejohn is unable to recount basic facts, like what the Silk Plant Forest sold. Littlejohn told police he and Smith entered Toys ‘R Us, next door to the Silk Plant Forest, after the attack. Video surveillance footage from that night showed no traces of Littlejohn or Smith.
“Littlejohn knew nothing about this crime,” Coleman said. “The police knew that and they pursued it anyway.”
Littlejohn has publicly recanted the testimony he gave on the stand at Smith’s trial. Another witness, Pamela Moore, has also retracted her testimony.
“[District Attorney] Tom Keith gets irritated when I say they acted as badly as Mike Nifong,” Coleman said. “I know it is going to send him up a wall when he reads about this in the paper.”did not return a phone call from YES! Weekly.
Smith’s conviction has been marred by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. The lead investigator, DR Williams, traveled to Marker’s home in Ohio and showed her a photo lineup of suspects in the case, Coleman said. When they showed her photographs of six white men, she identified Lamoureux, but the evidence was never given to Smith’s attorneys.
Coleman said that Keith has agreed that the failure to disclose evidence favorable to Smith was a violation of his rights.
“I think [Keith] is a good guy,” Coleman said. “I think he wants to do the right thing. But I don’t think he wants to admit that they screwed up another case.”
The Winston-Salem City Council authorized an official review of Smith’s case in January 2007. City Manager Lee Garrity and police Chief Pat Norris recruited a team of investigators charged with determining whether the police department violated any of its investigative procedures in the Smith case.
Garrity declined to comment for this story and Norris did not return a phone call.
The report was filed at city hall on Aug. 14. When Garrity discovered that one of the lead investigators had also supervised Williams in the original assault investigation, he withdrew the report. The city has since probed the reinvestigation and, in a memo dated Oct. 31, blamed the city manager and police chief for bungling the assignment.
The city is recruiting citizens for a review committee they are forming to evaluate the police department’s handling of the case. Meanwhile Smith languishes in jail. One of the audience members asked Coleman what exactly they were requesting from county prosecutors.
“I think what [Keith] needs to do is go into court with us and have the conviction overturned,” Coleman said.
Another audience followed up with a question about Williams.
“First things first,” Coleman said. “Let’s focus on Michael, get him out of prison, then focus on everything else.”
Many of the forum’s organizers worked for almost two decades to free Darryl Hunt. Larry Little, a professor who was instrumental in advancing Hunt’s cause, not only spoke at the event, he also brought a large group of students from Winston-Salem State University.
Before his conviction was overturned, Hunt met Smith in prison and heard the young man’s story. When he returned to Winston-Salem a free man, Hunt asked his supporters to take a look at Smith’s case.
“It is because Darryl Hunt came out of prison and said there is another case I want you to look at that we are here tonight,” Little said.
Little’s students gathered signatures from the attendees for an e-mail list. They also announced that students from Wake Forest University would be creating a Myspace page dedicated to the case.
“We have a mission to go out now and demand from Mr. Keith that he release Kalvin Michael Smith,” Hunt said. “One day in prison for something you didn’t do is too damn long.”
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