A murder trial that hinges on the testimony of just one eyewitness is a risky bet. The jury’s verdict depends almost entirely on how that witness comes across.
Last month at the Brooklyn criminal courthouse, the credibility of one such purported eyewitness retroactively imploded. The fireworks took place amid Ronnie Wright’s ongoing post-conviction hearing, in which Judge Sharen Hudson will decide whether Wright deserves a new trial.
As The Indypendent reported, Wright’s conviction for the 2006 murder of Andrell Napper in Bed-Stuy resulted from the testimony of Valerie Smith, who told the jury in October 2007 that she saw Wright (and two others) shoot into a crowd and kill Napper, an innocent bystander, in a botched gang retaliation hit. The prosecution presented no physical or forensic evidence linking Wright to the crime.
Smith, a confidante of the intended target, had known Wright for over 20 years but did not consider him a friend. In his post-verdict sentencing memo to the trial judge, Brooklyn prosecutor Howard Jackson attributed the jury’s verdict to her “credible testimony.” Earlier this year, Oresa Napper-Williams, the victim’s mother, recalled thanking Smith after the trial.
In late July, two women with Valerie Smith at the time of the shooting testified that Smith could not see the gunmen. One insisted that Valerie had been drinking vodka for several hours before the incident, and that even though she did not see the shooters, Smith immediately claimed Wright was involved. Before the second day of the recent testimony ended, Smith threatened one of the two witnesses.
Napper’s murder occurred on a Monday night in early August 2006. On the stand last month, Kristy, Smith’s neighbor, recalled sitting beside Valerie and a few others outside of the NYCHA building at 231 Throop Ave. when the shooting occurred.
Around 10 p.m., gunshots rang out across the street at a large gathering outside of 220 Throop, another NYCHA building. “We ran into the building,” Kristy stated (referring to 231 Throop), adding that Valerie fell on top of her in the entranceway.
In the 2007 trial, Smith told the jury that she was returning from her car — parked in front of 220 Throop — when the shooting happened. That account brought her 140 feet closer to the crime scene and provided a birds-eye view. Smith stated that she was 20 feet from Wright when he allegedly fired into the crowd.
Smith also testified that she had been in the car with Tam, whom she called her “cousin.” When Tam took the stand in late July, she stated that she and Valerie were in a “domestic relationship” that started a few years before 2006. The couple also worked together as hospital police officers at Bellevue, with Tam supervising Valerie.
According to Tam, Valerie had started drinking vodka in the early afternoon that fateful day. Around 3 p.m., they drove to Chinatown and purchased live crabs and more vodka, then returned to their unit at 231 Throop and cooked the shellfish. They then brought the food outside, and Valerie “brought her drink out.”
Tam’s account again placed Valerie sitting in a lawn chair at the time of the gunfire, which caused Smith to duck inside the building. Once they were the back at their apartment, Tam recalled Valerie’s insistence that “it must have been” Wright, whom they had briefly encountered several hours prior to the shooting.
Prior to August 2006, Smith, according to Tam, had worked quite closely with Det. Christopher Hennigan of the 79th Precinct, who led the Napper murder investigation. Hennigan worked with the NYPD-FBI gang joint task force, the pivotal role of which Wright’s team has been trying to spotlight. Asked by Wright’s attorney Dennis Kelly if Smith was a confidential informant for Hennigan and the NYPD, Tam stated, “Yeah, she used to help them with cases.”
After Tam made her damning statements in the morning session, lead prosecutor Matthew Stewart then called Smith during the lunch break. Smith, in turn, proceeded to call Tam, who had traveled from her current home in Houston with her husband for the hearing. Smith’s message was played in court during the afternoon session.
“Tam, I love you and I will always love you, but…this is some fucked-up lying shit that you doing right now,” said Valerie, who now lives in Maryland. “I don’t know who you with in New York with your husband, but I wish you well, baby. You better hope you make it out of New York. God bless you.”
Citing the ongoing hearing, the Brooklyn DA’s spokesperson declined to offer any on-the-record comments regarding the appropriateness of the actions of either assistant district attorney Stewart or Valerie Smith.
“ADA Stewart’s actions necessitate his recusal” from the remainder of Wright’s hearing (which resumes in late September), says Dennis Kelly, Wright’s lead attorney. Stewart, he adds, “is also now a witness in any prosecution of Smith for witness tampering.” In Kelly’s view, the DA’s office is “desperately attempting to preserve the conviction of an innocent man.”
One day after receiving the threat from Smith, Tam and her husband flew back to Houston. Before she left the courtroom, Judge Hudson offered her some friendly advice. “Safe trip home,” said the judge.
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