Cheers erupted in a Los Angeles courtroom on Monday afternoon when a judge exonerated John Edward Smith of a drive-by shooting he did not commit. Late Monday, Smith left Los Angeles Men’s Central Jail after serving 19 years in prison.
"I'm just thankful the same system that made the error was able to find the same avenue to get me out," Smith said to a throng of reporters who met him outside the jail Monday night.
"I'm not bitter at all. That ain't gonna get me nowhere, you know. I gotta move forward."
When asked what he was going to do next, Smith replied: "I'm gonna go home and hug my grandmother."
Smith was convicted of killing a man during a 1993 drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. Another man survived and was the single witness to the alleged crime. Two years ago, he recanted the testimony that led to Smith’s 1994 conviction for first-degree murder and attempted murder.
The 37-year-old was scheduled to be released on Friday, but the judge was out due to illness. Still, Smith was all smiles on Monday as the judge released him after nearly two decades behind bars: "Mr. Smith, you are now free."
The ruling evoked mixed emotions from Smith’s family.
"I’m happy. I’m sad. But the part of me that was in there with him, I’m free now, too," said Laura Neal, Smith’s grandmother and primary caretaker.
"I was hoping and praying that before I die he will be with me again," she said.
For Smith’s sister, who largely grew up without her older brother, Monday’s exoneration marked a monumental day for her and her family.
"I'm just so happy to have my brother back," she said through tears. "My grandma’s been sick and she’s been holding to see my brother, so this is a really big day for our family and we’re just so happy."
Smith’s case spurred the creation of Innocence Matters, a non-profit organization whose pro-bono legal team has been at the helm of his exoneration for three years.
"We actually became a non-profit in a hurry so that we could have him be our first client," founder Deirdre O’Connor told NBC4 on Friday.
Outside the courtroom Friday, O’Connor held back tears as she recalled having to tell Smith he would have to wait out the weekend in a jail cell.
"The closer you get to freedom, the harder it is to wait another second, another minute, another day," she said.
Still, the group remained largely optimistic that their client would be exonerated.
"We have a bit of a broken system and the fact that we can come in and make some systemic changes like this and help prevent it from happening to somebody else, it means the world," said Jessica Farris with Innocence Matters.
Smith says the first items on his agenda now that he's free: get a license and find a job.