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Murder Conviction Reversed: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

People v. Smothers Court: California Courts of Appeal, Docket: A156081 (First Appellate District), Opinion Date: July 20, 2021. In 1983, Marsha Carter was found dead, in the trunk of her car, from multiple sharp-force injuries. The case went inactive. In 2008, investigators processed evidence, using procedures unavailable in 1983. The DNA analysis of blood found in Carter’s home pointed to Smothers, who was dating Carter in 1983. Scrapings beneath Carter’s fingernails yielded DNA, which was entered into the FBI’s CODIS database of DNA profiles, and matched to Sennett, who had no known connection to California, Carter, or Smothers. In 2016, Smothers was charged with Carter’s murder. Defense counsel never introduced evidence that the DNA evidence was matched to Sennett, although the court had given the green light to do so. The defense presented no witnesses. Smothers did not testify. Smothers's conviction was most consistent with the theory that Smothers conspired with a third party to kill Carter. The court of appeal reversed. Smothers’s attorney was ineffective for not presenting the available Sennett evidence, including his identity, to the jury. The prosecution’s key witness testified that Smothers tried to get him and/or other local friends to help him kill Carter. To convict Smothers of the uncharged conspiracy to commit murder, the prosecution had to prove that Smothers had the specific intent to enter into an agreement with someone to kill Carter. There was no evidence that Smothers entered into an agreement with Sennett. The jury likely concluded that Smothers finally located some local acquaintance to kill Carter; it is unclear whether this jury would have reached the same conclusion if they had been told Sennett’s identity and heard there was no known connection between him and Smothers.

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