I Cleared Johnny Ray Smith Jr. Of Burglary and Battery — Here's Why

I'd always believed the old wives' tale that journalists get tossed out of jury pools quicker than Liz Lemon in Princess Leia drag, so I almost dropped my book when Judge Nushin Sayfie called my name on Monday. Along with five other lucky citizens, I'd been asked to sit in judgment of Johnny Ray Smith Jr., a hulking 44-year-old accused of felony burglary and battery.

After a day of testimony and an hour of debate, we cleared him of everything but one misdemeanor count of criminal mischief.

I spend most of my week at New Times chasing down cops and lawyers and all the criminals they pursue and defend, so -- once the shock wore off -- I was actually grateful for the chance to see the process from the other side of the juror's box.

Smith, a muscular, dreadlocked man with glinting gold teeth and a bright orange shirt and tie, stood accused of breaking into his ex-wife's house, breaking her blinds and then scratching her face when she asked him to leave. On the way out, prosecutors said, he'd stolen her power meter and cut off her electricity.

There were some odd facts, though, even in the opening statements. Smith, prosecutors admitted, had a key to his ex-wife's house. His defense attorney, Jorge Viera, added that he kept his clothes at her apartment -- and even received his mail there.

The prosecutor's key witness, Smith's ex-wife April Williams, didn't do much to dispel our doubts. She walked into court loudly chewing something and then asked the clerk to wait an agonizing 20 seconds or so while she finished masticating her snack before raising her right hand.

On the stand, she mumbled inaudibly and seemed confused about dates and facts. Most damningly, she admitted that Smith came to her apartment "every day" and that at the time of the alleged burglary the two had rekindled a sexual relationship.

The prosecutors' only other witness, a Miami PD crime scene technician, testified that when he arrived, he found Williams with a fresh-looking scratch on her face. He also said he'd taken photos of a damaged window blind and a missing power meter.

But the tech hadn't brought the photos or any police reports to court. Where was the evidence he collected on the scene? He never said.

Still, we'd been instructed before the trial that we couldn't acquit Smith because of a lack of physical evidence. If we believed the witnesses we'd heard, we had to trust their testimony.

So we returned to our jury room to talk over the case. We were a mixed bunch -- sleep-deprived new mom Joana, quiet college students Jennifer and Frank, a sharp FIU employee and Nigerian immigrant named Rasheed, and a bright UM worker named Aida -- but we were largely in agreement on the facts.

To convict someone of burglary, the state has to prove they entered or remained somewhere without permission with the intent of committing another crime.

Smith had a key to Williams' apartment. She admitted that he came there every day. His clothes and mail were there. Her testimony did nothing to alleviate the reasonable doubt we had that he wasn't free to enter as he pleased.

What's more, to get Smith on the burglary charge we had to believe he'd entered with the intent to batter his ex-wife.

While we all believed Williams that her face was scratched during her fight with Smith, neither the prosecutors nor the victim expended any effort to describe how she was injured. There was no way for us to know if he intentionally scratched her.

So burglary was out, battery was out, and all we were left with was criminal mischief. Both Williams and the crime scene tech told us that Smith had ripped out her power meter on the way out. We had no reason to doubt it.

Smith cried on his attorney's shoulder when the verdict was read. The prosecutors stared daggers through the jury box. The jury left feeling we'd reached the only conclusion we could.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink