Standing at a lectern in Annapolis, Demetrius Smith explained to lawmakers how his wrongful conviction for murder had affected his life.
Smith said his daughter grew up without him. He said it was difficult to rebuild that relationship. And he said he experienced challenges trying to start fresh.
“Even though the real perpetrators have been convicted, I’m still not eligible for compensation,” Smith told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee in 2020. “What stronger proof of my innocence could there actually be?” he later added.
Though it would take one more year, the Maryland General Assembly in 2021 passed the Walter Lomax Act, which overhauled how the government compensates people who are wrongfully convicted, sentenced and incarcerated for crimes. The state has since paid out more than $7.52 million to seven exonerees — plus attorney fees and money for housing.
Despite lobbying for the measure, Smith has so far been denied compensation and benefits.
“I just wish somebody in this case would just do the right thing,” said Smith, 40, a utility worker who owns his own landscaping business and lives in Baltimore, in a recent interview. “It would help me a lot.”
The ‘thinnest case I’d ever seen’
On March 24, 2008, Robert Long was shot and killed in an area behind Traci Atkins Park in Southwest Baltimore known as the “Lumber Yard.” He was 36.
Baltimore Police later arrested Smith based on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and a woman who had a substance use disorder. She eventually recanted and reported that one of the detectives pressured her into making an identification, according to court documents.
Less than two months after his arrest, while he had been awaiting trial in the killing, Smith was taken into custody on a charge of first-degree assault and held without bail in the shooting of Clyde Hendricks, which happened on Aug. 22, 2008.
Detective Charles Bealefeld — the brother of then-Police Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld III — worked on the murder investigation and took the lead on the shooting.
In 2010, Smith was found guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court of first-degree murder in Long’s killing and later sentenced to life in prison — plus 18 years. Smith had always maintained his innocence but lost faith in his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Anne-Marie Gering, and the criminal justice system.
So he entered an Alford plea to first-degree assault in 2011 for 10 years in prison, which was set to run at the same time as his sentence for murder. He professed his innocence to the shooting, telling the judge that he was “copping out” to a crime that he did not commit.
Hendricks was drunk at the time and did not mention to investigators that he knew the shooter. Smith, though, was his neighbor and a family friend. And he reported that he had two alibi witnesses, according to court documents.
Later, court documents state, a woman who picked out Smith as the gunman recanted and reported that police pressured her into making an identification.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Attorney’s Office notified local prosecutors that federal investigators had uncovered evidence that a man named Jose Morales was responsible for the murder.
Thirteen days before he was shot and killed, Long had agreed to testify against Morales in several theft cases in Baltimore Circuit Court. Smith asked for a new trial without opposition, and prosecutors dropped the murder case in 2012.
Morales was found guilty in 2013 in U.S. District Court in Baltimore of using a cellphone to arrange the murder for hire and sentenced to life in prison. The hitman, Troy Lucas, a member of the Dead Man Inc. prison and street gang, was convicted of the killing in 2017 and later ordered to serve two life sentences — plus 10 years.
In 2013, Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams modified Smith’s sentence in the assault case, which cleared the way for his release from prison.
Williams changed the sentence again in 2018 to probation before judgment, which is not considered a conviction under Maryland law.
‘How can you say I’m eligible … but you’re not giving me no benefit?’
Fast forward three years.
In 2021, Smith filed a request for compensation and benefits for both the murder and the assault case under the Walter Lomax Act, which is named after a man who served almost 40 years in prison for a deadly shooting that he did not commit in Baltimore.
The attorney general’s office asserted that Smith was not entitled to compensation and benefits for the wrongful murder conviction, either, contending that a judge had awarded him credit for the time he spent in pretrial detention for the assault case dating to his arrest on Aug. 24, 2008.
If his sentence started on that date, Smith would have been incarcerated anyway the entire time he was imprisoned for the murder that he did not commit. The law includes language that people cannot receive compensation for any period when they were serving a sentence for “a conviction of another offense for which the individual was lawfully convicted and confined.”
Ralph Mayrell, Smith’s current attorney, contended that his client was eligible for compensation and benefits — and entitled to receive them — in both cases. That’s because everyone agrees that his client is innocent of murder, and a judge gave him probation before judgment in the assault case, which is not considered a conviction under Maryland law.
In the alternative, Mayrell argued, Smith should receive compensation and benefits from the time between when he was sentenced for murder and entered a plea to assault: March 22, 2010, to Feb. 16, 2011.
The law, he has said, is forward-looking. Mayrell disputed that his client received credit for pretrial detention in the assault case but maintained that did not matter, anyway. A judge must specifically indicate that on the record, he said, which did not happen.
At a minimum, Mayrell asserted that his client should receive benefits for the wrongful murder conviction.
Administrative Law Judge Edward J. Kelley held that Smith was not eligible for compensation and benefits for the assault case, ruling that he had been lawfully convicted, sentenced and confined.
But Kelley determined there was a material dispute with the murder case and scheduled a hearing.
Smith testified at the hearing that no one has apologized to him for his wrongful murder conviction.
“You know, that’s all I ever asked,” Smith said. “It’s not even about the money because that’s not going to bring back the time, we can’t get, I can’t get them years back ever. They gone.”
Though he called the wrongful murder conviction a “travesty of justice” and remarked that his decision might seem harsh, Kelley ruled in 2022 that Smith was eligible for compensation and benefits — but not entitled to them.
“The Claimant was wrongfully convicted, sentenced, and confined for murder,” Kelley wrote. “However, there was never a day when the Claimant was confined for murder that he was not also serving his lawful concurrent sentence for first-degree assault.”
Smith recalled that he was upset when he learned about the decision. “How can you say I’m eligible, I won, but you’re not giving me no benefit?” he said.
Recently, Circuit Judge Gregory Sampson upheld that ruling from the administrative law judge.
Mayrell has filed an appeal to the Appellate Court of Maryland.
“This law was made to compensate people like Demetrius who have been hurt by the system,” Mayrell said in an interview. “And he’s being stopped from getting compensated as a result of technicalities and charges on another crime that every piece of evidence shows he did not commit.”
In the meantime, Mayrell said, he hopes that leadership in the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office and the Maryland Office of the Attorney General take notice of the case.
They have the ability, he said, to right the wrong.
‘It’s hard to imagine a more quintessential example of just terrible injustice’
Whenever a new law takes effect, there are going to be novel legal issues that come up, said Neel Lalchandani, an attorney who has represented several clients seeking compensation and benefits for wrongful convictions in Maryland.
The Walter Lomax Act, he said, is supposed to help alleviate the consequences of a wrongful conviction. Lalchandani said he believes that the law should be interpreted in a way that’s favorable to people if there’s a close legal question, as opposed to the courts adopting “hyper technical readings that would prevent exonerees from accessing life-altering benefits.”
“There’s so much of a wrongful conviction that can’t be remedied,” Lalchandani said. “But for the parts of the wrongful conviction that can be remedied, the hope is that the state and this law can at least do that small part in helping the exoneree move forward.”
The namesake of the law, Walter Lomax, said he believes that Smith “should definitely be entitled to compensation.”
Since his release from prison, Smith has maintained employment and stayed out of trouble, said Michele Nethercott, former director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law who previously represented him.
Smith, she said, worked on behalf of other exonerees to fix the law so they could receive compensation in Maryland. “But in a sort of awful irony,” she said, “he can’t.”
“For me, it’s hard to imagine a more quintessential example of just terrible injustice,” Nethercott said. “It’s just frustrating.”
Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, said the finding that Smith had been serving a sentence for assault during the entire time that he was wrongfully imprisoned for murder is the “least charitable” interpretation of the law.
“Sometimes, the criminal legal system is often really cruel,” Armbrust said. “And this is an example.”