Billy James Smith, 65, Dallas Exoneree Was Falsely Imprisoned for Nearly 20 Years

Billy James Smith spent nearly 20 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit.Smith, who received a life sentence in 1987, battled in the courts for five years for a DNA test that won his exoneration. He later returned to the courthouse to receive compensation for his prison time.He recovered from the ordeals of his youth to marry and settle into everyday life. He also became a respected champion of the innocence movement in Texas.Smith, 65, died March 25 of lung cancer at Methodist Charlton Medical Center. He received a diagnosis of stage IV cancer in February.Services will be at 11 a.m. Saturday at These Are They Community Church, 200 S. Polk St. in DeSoto. Burial will be in Lincoln Memorial Park in Dallas.Since he was freed in 2006, Smith had worked diligently to help those unjustly imprisoned, said Gary Udashen, board president of the Innocence Project of Texas."He was somebody who was really well respected among everybody involved in this work," Udashen said.Smith worked with other exonerees, spoke at seminars for lawyers and frequently lobbied the Texas Legislature."He was very engaging and was really impressive," Udashen said.In January, Smith met with Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson to introduce her to other exonerees. He asked Johnson to support a bill that would require police interrogations to be videotaped, Udashen said.Smith found happiness as an exoneree.He was 57 when he married Emely Kaye Hunter, who had three children from a previous marriage.During his imprisonment, Smith longed for a normal life, said his wife, who lives in Glenn Heights."He said he always would pray that God would give him a family," she said. "He said that he just wanted a normal life with a family that he could love and would love him."Smith became like a father to his stepchildren."They have their father, but when they have problems or issues, they would talk to him ... before they would go to their dad. Once they got to know him, they called him every day, just to say, 'Hey Dad, how you doing?' "Smith was born in Sherman and grew up in Dallas, where he attended L.G. Pinkston High School. He did electrical work, but by age 34, he also had convictions for car theft and robbery.One night in the summer of 1986, a woman was abducted from an north Oak Cliff apartment and raped at knife point in a nearby field. The victim described the assailant to her boyfriend, who was manager of the apartment complex.Later that night, a police officer banged on the door of Smith's sister's apartment, where he was sleeping on the couch. The officer asked Smith to step out on the balcony, where the victim, on the ground below, identified him as her attacker."That was the first time I saw her," Smith said in 2008. "The second time I saw her was in court."Smith also said that at the time, he owed the apartment manager $250 from a drug deal.In 1987, Smith was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to life. No physical evidence implicated him, and no eyewitnesses were presented during trial. The victim has since been convicted of robbery and prostitution.In 2001, Smith requested DNA testing to prove is innocence. He battled the Dallas County district attorney's office for years before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in his favor.Smith had just been out of prison for about six months when he met his future wife at a Walmart."He stopped me and asked my name," she said. "He gave me his number and asked me if I would call him."Several months later, she called and they set up a dinner date at a Denny's restaurant. She liked his easy-going manner."Later on, I found out how good a heart he had," she said. "He was always trying to help other people."It was difficult for Smith to approach her for a date, she recalled."He said he was afraid to talk to women or get to know them because of the false rape charges," she said. "He said there was just something about me that he knew that I was the one."The couple married on Sept. 19, 2009.Smith's sister, Elizabeth Smith, died three years ago.In addition to his wife, Smith is survived by his sister, Nettie Smith of DeSoto; stepdaughters, Monica Hunter and Diondala "Dee" Wooten, both of Grand Prairie; a stepson, Marcus Hunter of Tyler; five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.Memorial contributions may be made to the Innocence Project of Texas.  Continue reading...

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