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Man remains in prison 16 years after key witness admits he lied

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Posted at 5:30 PM, Jul 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-14 23:34:17-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — "I don't wish this on my worst enemy," said Marcel Smith who has been locked up since 2000 when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old Detroit man.

"It's been hell," he said. "Hell on earth."

Marcel has always maintained that he had nothing to do with the homicide in 2000 in which his brother, Lawrence Armstrong, admits to pulling the trigger.

"Because of something that I did, he's now in prison for it," Lawrence said. "It hurts every day."

The brothers had separate trials in 2001.

Lawrence was convicted on multiple charges, including first-degree premeditated murder. He's now serving a life sentence in prison.

Marcel, who is 15 years older than Lawrence, said he was watching football at a friend's house in another part of the city when Lawrence went to confront the victim and his friends for allegedly shooting up their mother's house early that morning.

Marcel, who is now 53, was sentenced to 45 years in prison for what Detroit police and a key witness claimed was his involvement in the murder. He also received two additional years in prison for the gun charge.

'Police told me Booby did it'

Four years after Marcel was convicted, the prosecution's key witness admitted he lied under oath during Marcel's trial.

In 2004, in a sworn statement, the witness said pressure from "citizens in the street" and wanting people to pay for the killing of his friend, prompted him to lie and say that he recognized Lawrence's oldest brother, Marcel, as being involved in the shooting.

An attorney asked that same witness under oath in 2004 if he knew Marcel at the time of the shooting.

"Don't know him at all," the witness replied.

The questioning continued.

"The sheet of paper here, Exhibit 2, indicates that you picked Number 5 which was a photograph of Marcel Smith. How did you pick that photograph out, sir?"

The witness replied: "Several police officers pointed to him and they said, "This is Marcel Smith. We got him in custody."

The attorney continued with another question: "Is that the only reason you were able to recognize and pick the photograph of Marcel Smith?"

"Yes," the witness replied.

That witness also went before a judge in 2005 and, again under oath, said, "The police told me Booby did it."

Booby was Marcel's nickname. The witness went on to say that he was also being threatened by a local gang to lie and say Marcel was also involved in the fatal shooting.

"The police told me and that's why I did it, I was afraid of my life," the witness said as he responded to questions by a Wayne County assistant prosecuting attorney. "I was threatened for my life and I was scared."

Marcel said the first time he ever saw the man whose testimony would send him to prison, was in court.

"I could look at his face and I could tell that he didn't really want to be there," Marcel said about seeing the witness on the stand during his trial. "I don't even know this guy from a can of paint."

In 2004, after that witness recanted, Marcel Smith figured getting out of prison was going to be just a short matter of time.

And that's what his mom and the rest of the family thought, too.

But they were wrong. Nothing changed.

"This has been devastating for me and my family," said Marcel from prison. "I just knew I would have been out back in 2004."

"For 20 years, I've just been sitting in here just rotting away for a crime I had absolutely nothing to do with," he said. "I wasn't there. I had no knowledge the crime was going to occur or anything."

"I never seen any of these guys a day in my life. To my knowledge, they never even knew I existed. So I just want some type of justice," Marcel said.

The witness said he tried again in 2014 to undo the damage he caused and he wrote another sworn statement, and in it he said, "I furnished the State of Michigan with coerced testimony because I was constrained by police officers and gang members to incriminate Mr. Smith in the shooting..."

It was "suggested by the police investigators," he said. "I lied because I was very afraid and under pressure."

The witness stated that he had never seen Marcel Smith before police showed him his photograph.

"I think they (police) just wanted to hurry and get the case over and done with," Marcel said. "So, they took the events that happened the night before and they just automatically assumed that I had something to do with it since my name had gotten mentioned the night before as being a victim. So, they just put it all in a basket and just put a bow on it and said it's got to be him."

'Mama tried'

Diana Smith, mother to Marcel, Lawrence and two other boys, spent everything she had on attorneys, hoping to get Marcel released from prison and something less than a life sentence for Lawrence who maintains that he only shot the victim because he pulled a gun on him first.

"We stopped celebrating holidays," said Aris Armstrong, the youngest of Diana's boys, who was 14-years-old at the time and away at camp."We stopped celebrating Christmas. We stopped celebrating Thanksgiving. My mama stopped celebrating everything because they wasn't home."

"She tried her best to have Marcel exonerated," Torrey Smith said about their mom who died in 2016. "She knew that he did not belong there and that he was not on the scene and he didn't have anything to do with Lawrence's crime."

"My mama refinanced her house. My daddy's house always been paid off. My daddy always kept a Corvette," Aris said. "And you went from a Corvette to a 90s pickup truck because you putting everything you got into trying to get your kids out."

Lawrence Armstrong Sr. and Diana had two boys together, but Torrey said his stepfather helped raise all four boys.

Lawrence Sr. died in 2012. And when Diana died four years later, Marcel got a prison tattoo for everything their mom did to get him out.

On the center of his left bicep, it reads, "Mama tried" with cell bars under it.

"She did everything she could. She took out a second and third mortgage on her home. She wound up losing that paying for all these attorneys," Marcel said. "I've had like four retained attorneys - all paid for by my mother."

The weight of guilt

In February 2019, the same witness who recanted in 2004, 2005, and 2014, tried once again to help Marcel Smith get out of prison.

"I have testified and proclaimed Mr. Smith's innocence since 2004 and will continue to do what I can to right my wrong," he wrote in another statement to anyone who would listen to him.

The witness detailed how he says he's already gone on the record to say that he did not see or even know Marcel at the time the fatal shooting.

"I also testified that the Detroit Police detective told me Mr. Smith's name," he wrote. "Prior to that, I told all of the officers I talked to that day I did not know..."

"I truly pray that the powers to be will finally hear me vindicate the man and help me relieve some of the guilt I've carried since 2000," he wrote.

Conviction Integrity Unit

"When I heard that the Conviction Integrity Unit got opened down there at Kym Worthy's office, I figured this was my last shot right here," said Marcel who submitted his case to the unit in 2019. "I just hope I get vindicated."

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy began the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in 2018 to investigate claims of innocence and "determine whether there is clear and convincing new evidence that the convicted defendant was not the person who committed the conviction offense."

To date, the CIU has received 1,352 requests for investigation with 174 of those requests coming in 2020.

And since the CIU was formed, they have granted relief to defendants in 20 cases, seven of those decisions to grant relief have come this year.

Worthy said one person who may have been wrongfully convicted is one too many."

"The truth is what matters. The truth is everything. The truth is preeminent," Worthy said. "We are criticized often for taking too long to sign warrants because we don't rubber stamp. We want to make sure that we act with all available information we have at the time. And there's 30 percent of cases that are brought to our office that we do not issue for that reason."

Worthy and attorney Valerie Newman, who heads up the Conviction Integrity Unit, could not speak about Marcel Smith's case, but a spokesperson for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office confirms that it is in their office for review.

"We recognize that people get up and testify for all kinds of reasons," Newman said. "In fact, the prosecutor has already given relief in cases just like that - cases where witnesses have come forward and said I did not tell the truth at trial and this is why."

Newman said her small staff of attorneys and investigators then work to corroborate the new information.

"I became a lawyer because I'm very passionate about doing the right thing," Newman said. "Hopefully the goal of this unit is to work itself out of existence.

Working alongside Newman in the Conviction Integrity Unit are two full time attorneys, two part time attorneys, two full time detectives, a part time law student researcher, and one full time support person.

Marcel submitted his case to the unit in 2019.

"I've been as mad as I could possibly be and it ain't getting me nowhere," Marcel said. "I don't know what else to do. This is my last hope right here."

Action News has contacted Detroit Police for comment on the allegations of police misconduct. A spokesperson for the department said they are reviewing the case.

Less than life

While Marcel's younger brother, Lawrence Armstrong, admitted to pulling the trigger and killing the young man in 2000, he hasn't given up hope that his sentence might be reduced to some term of years less than life.

Lawrence claims the shooting was self-defense and that friends of the young man he shot removed the firearm he had and hid it before police arrived.

Lawrence jumped in a vehicle and fled the scene.

Court documents filed 12 years ago indicate Torrey Smith, one of Lawrence and Marcel's brothers, testified at trial that there was animosity between Lawrence and the victim over Lawrence's "unwillingness to join their street gang."

Torrey described several incidents between Lawrence and the victim in which, he says, Lawrence was attacked.

At trial, Lawrence testified that the victim had been threatening to kill him for several years.

The same witness who admitted he lied in Marcel's case also testified against Lawrence in his trial and told the jury that his friend who was killed was not armed with a gun.

Lawrence was convicted of First Degree Premeditated Murder.

But when that witness came forward in 2004 to recant his testimony in Marcel's case, he said his friend who was killed was actually the first one to draw his weapon during the confrontation with Lawrence.

"(He) opened fire on Lawrence and Lawrence pulled his gun out and was shooting back," the witness said under oath in 2004.

Action News has made contact with a relative of the 18-year-old killed 20 years ago. They have not responded with any comment.

"I feel for them," Marcel said. "But I had absolutely nothing to do with his death."

All I want

Sixteen years after the key witness came forward to say that he lied under oath, Marcel told 7 Action News that he can only hope that he'll soon be reunited with his family, including a grandchild he's never met.

"All I want is to get out of here and be with my family and take care of my children and my grandkids and my youngest siblings, that's it. That's all I want," said Marcel, who is the oldest of Diana's children. "A formal apology will be good enough for me and let me go about my life, that's it."

Marcel Smith said if his conviction is ever vacated or overturned, the first place he wants to go after being released from prison is the cemetery.

"The first thing I want to do is visit my mother's grave," he said. "And just let her know she tried and she did it."

If nothing changes for Marcel, he won't be eligible for parole until 2047. He'll be 80-years-old.

Lawrence, speaking from a prison in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, said, "If my brother can get out of here, I mean, of course I want to be free, but if he could get out of here, man, I would take that as a win," said Lawrence. At least I could say, man, it worked at least for one of us."