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John Edward Smith, former Calif. gang member, exonerated of murder after 19 years in prison

John Edward Smith posing with his grandmother, Laura Neal. AP Photo, undated/Deirdre O'Connor, File

(CBS/AP) LOS ANGELES - A former gang member has been exonerated after spending 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

John Edward Smith, now 37, walked out of a Los Angeles County jail a free man on Monday night.

"I had good days and bad days, I stayed hopeful and that's all I could do," he told reporters outside the downtown jail. "I'm not bitter at all, because that ain't going to get me nowhere. I've got to move on."

Smith said he was looking forward to going home and seeing his grandmother, 79-year-old Laura Neal, who raised him. Family members drove him to her house, which she had mortgaged to pay for his initial defense, said Smith's lawyer, Deirdre O'Connor.

Neal used a walker to attend the hearing earlier Monday where a judge vacated Smith's convictions for murder and attempted murder in a gang-related drive-by shooting. Prosecutors told the judge they were convinced that the lone eyewitness to the 1993 shooting had lied at Smith's trial, naming him as the gunman. Smith maintained he was at his grandmother's house when the shooting occurred several blocks away.

After the Superior Court Judge Patricia Schnegg announced her decision, the courtroom erupted in applause, cheers and shouts of "We love you" as Smith smiled broadly. Those applauding for Smith included pop star Chris Brown, who was in the same courtroom for his probation hearing involving the 2009 beating of his then-girlfriend Rihanna.

"I always knew he didn't do it," Neal told reporters after court. "I'm happy and sad. But the part of me that was in there with him - I'm free now too."

Smith was 18 when he went to prison for the crime. He told authorities he was at his grandmother's house with family when the shooting took place on Sept. 9, 1993, in a gang-infested area.

He said he knew nothing about the crime until his mother called to tell him about it.

Smith's sister, Tiana Goodman, 25, said he would be meeting nieces and nephews who were born while he was in prison.

"This is a big day for our family," she said, tears running down her cheeks. "He kept his faith and never gave up."

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