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Behind the Headline: Demetrius Smith

Demetrius Smith was wrongfully convicted of murder, but still had a felony conviction because of an unusual plea deal. ProPublica’s story spurred a new hearing for Smith that cleared his criminal record.

Lexey Swall, special to ProPublica

Impact has been at the core of ProPublica’s mission since we launched 10 years ago, and it remains the principal yardstick for our success today. For our 10th anniversary, we’re presenting stories of people whose lives have been affected by our work.

Demetrius Smith was wrongly accused of shooting someone — not once, but twice.

In 2008, a jury found Smith guilty of murder and sentenced him to life plus 18 years for shooting his neighbor, a crime he maintained he didn’t commit. He served more than five years before he was proven innocent and exonerated.

Because of this injustice, when Smith was wrongfully convicted of another shooting, he reluctantly took a special plea deal that allowed him to maintain his innocence and be released, while the felony conviction was left on his record.

This kind of plea deal is called an Alford plea, in which a defendant enters a guilty plea while also asserting his innocence for the record. The deal allows the inmate to avoid prison time. But he remains convicted of the crime, forever a felon. In her “Ignoring Innocence” series, reporter Megan Rose documented the consequences of this bad deal.

While he avoided prison time, Smith found that the felony conviction had other consequences: “You can’t get housing, you can’t get certain jobs,” he said. “When you try to explain the story [to employers], they don’t want to hear all that. I had nothing to do with the shooting, but I was still paying for it.”

Smith returned to court in 2017, requesting to revise his Alford plea and clear his record. The prosecutor vetoed the request, wrongly claiming that the judge had no power to help him. When ProPublica reporter Megan Rose reached out to Smith about telling his story, he was cautiously optimistic. “I never heard of ProPublica, but I was hoping that people actually read your paper,” he said.

Fortunately, the right people did read the ProPublica story. Weeks after its publication, the prosecutor admitted he’d been wrong and asked a judge to schedule a new hearing. In January 2018, that hearing ended with Smith’s felony conviction cleared from his record.

“I felt so good, like my life was starting,” Smith said of that day. “The story made people see what actually goes on in a courtroom with these prosecutors,” Smith said. “This type of stuff happens all the time and doesn’t get put out there enough.”

Today, Smith is working with partners to launch a business that will train people with felony convictions in landscaping and construction. Its name: Growing Opportunities. “I want to give everybody a shot, no matter what’s on their record, whether they were innocent or guilty, because everybody deserves a second chance,” said Smith. “I don’t think God brought me this far for nothing. There’s a reason.”

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