By VICTOR A. PATTON
Stanley Erwin Smith Jr., 24, was released after the Merced County District Attorney's office dismissed murder charges against him for the May 29, 2003, shooting death of Samuel L. Townsel, 23, of Merced. He couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
Deputy District Attorney David Elgin said the charges against Smith were dropped after two subpoenaed witnesses in the case on June 25 gave information that appeared to completely exonerate him.
Elgin would not elaborate on how the witnesses were related to the case, or their specific comments that helped show Smith wasn't involved, because he said the investigation is continuing.
Smith was facing 50 years to life in prison. His trial was scheduled to begin this week.
"We took a step back to evaluate that information and after looking at it, in light of the full evidence that we had available, we thought more investigation needed to done," Elgin said.
"We're not going to prosecute someone that we're not absolutely sure is the person that did it. And we're not going to proceed into trial without evidence of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," he added.
Although all of the charges have been dropped against Smith, Elgin said they would be filed again if any new information is discovered that points to him as a suspect.
Smith's lawyer doubts that will happen. "Mr. Smith has always been clear about his own innocence and doesn't think that there is going to be anything that is going to change," said Merced County Public Defender Wayne Eisenhart.
Smith, who was 20 at the time of the murder, turned himself in to investigators in February 2004. He was wanted by Merced Police for allegedly fatally shooting Townsel on the 3200 block of Denver Avenue. Police also believed Smith shot Townsel's brother, Avery Townsel, in the leg with a .38 caliber revolver.
Police said the crime stemmed from an argument, and that Smith was seen fighting with Townsel at Rahilly Park before the shooting.
Elgin said that information provided by witnesses was used to implicate Smith. He fled to Rialto in San Bernardino County after the shooting, where police said he stayed for eight months.
When asked about why the case has taken so long to go to trial, Eisenhart said there has been a scarcity of witnesses willing to come forward -- a point which Elgin corroborated. "We expected that at some point there would be witnesses that would exonerate him," Eisenhart said. "And we tried, for a long time, to find those witnesses and it just wasn't happening."
Elgin said no other arrests have been made in the case. "There have been undocumented threats to witnesses," Elgin said. "People have been fearful to come forward on this case. It's been a very frustrating case, because from the prosecution's standpoint, we can't get the witnesses to come forward. And the defense has the same problems."
"I still believe there are other witnesses out there that could have said things that would have been exonerating," Eisenhart said.
Eisenhart said a bullet -- the only physical evidence in the case -- was missing for a period of time -- although it eventually was found. "We went to the police department ourselves and looked and it wasn't there," Eisenhart added. "It showed up a week before the trial. That was a problem."
Although police said in 2004 that they believed Smith was a gang member, Eisenhart and members of Smith's family have inisted that's not true. "There is nothing that I learned from either him or his family or people that knew him, or either from the district attorney's office that would let me believe that he had anything to do with gangs," Eisenhart said.
Eisenhart also described Smith as an "innocuous" person. "It didn't make sense. He's not the kind of person who would do this sort of thing," Eisenhart contended.
William Smith, 74, Stanley Smith Jr.'s grandfather, said he and the rest of his family are extremely pleased about his release. "He feels exuberant," Smith said. "He just feels like he's been born again. He just wants to get his life back together, get his feet back on the ground and get re-established with society."
Smith did not say whether his grandson would seek legal redress for the time he spent in jail. "I think it's too soon. That hasn't come yet up yet," Smith said.
Eisenhart also said Smith seems to be doing relatively well emotionally -- considering that he's just spent the past three years in jail. "We don't know how it's affected him deep down inside, but he seems to be good," Eisenhart said. "He's matured, actually, from the time that he's been in jail."
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at 209-385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BS Ranch Perspective
I guess when you didn't do it you really didn't do it, but to spend 3 years of your life behind the walls and chain link fence lines of a jail is and has to be overwhelmingly hard to accept, I guess right now it has to be great to be out, and free, but to get out and see what has changed in the 3 short years that you have been away. The Internet has gotten speed, and well now you can figure out who that killer was without the help from the jail or the people that maintain it. I am sorry that he spent all this time in Jail, but was he Innocent of all charges, or was he released because the Police Department lost the Evidence of the crime. I have seen it happened time and time again.