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California Man Has Second Conviction Overturned In Prosecutor, Police Misconduct Scandal

Paul Gentile Smith pleaded guilty to soliciting an assault and was separately convicted of murder in 2010. The courts have now thrown out both convictions, saying they were tainted by prosecutorial misconduct.

By Jax Miller
Courtroom G

A man whose a murder conviction was overturned last year due to police and prosecutor misconduct has now had his assault-for-hire conviction dropped for the same reason.

On Tuesday, Orange County prosecutors asked a judge to allow Paul Gentile Smith, 62, to withdraw his guilty plea in an attempted plot to beat up a police investigator, and a judge vacated the conviction, according to Law&Crime and the Orange County Register. Smith's 2010 conviction for a 1988 murder was overturned by a judge in August 2021, according to the Register, but he is facing a new trial on those charges in November.

Both convictions were allegedly tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct, the courts found.

Smith was charged in 2009 with the 1988 murder of Robert Haugen, a childhood friend of Smith’s and occasional marijuana dealer, according to the Register. Haugen was found dead in his Sunset Beach apartment in October 1988, having sustained 18 stab wounds before someone set his naked body on fire.

The victim was left nearly decapitated, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Smith was eventually connected to the crime scene after police in Las Vegas obtained his DNA in 2007 after a domestic assault against a woman he had been dating named Tina Smith (no relation), according to Orange County News Radio KFI AM. In that case, Smith allegedly stabbed, tortured and attempted to set the victim on fire. The perpetrator's DNA in the Tina Smith case matched blood left behind at Haugen’s crime scene.

Smith was then transferred to the Orange County Jail to await trial, and placed in a cell with three informants, who admitted to working together to coax a confession out of him. One testified against him at trial; prosecutors failed to disclose to the defense that all three cellmates were informants.

While in prison awaiting trial — and with the help of Tina Smith — Smith then allegedly attempted to pay someone $300 to assault Orange County Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Wert, the lead investigator in the Haugen case, according to the Associated Press.

Smith ultimately pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charges, got convicted of the murder and was sentenced to life in prison. He also had a special enhancement attached to his charges for torture, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

In 2014, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders — as part of another case — uncovered the long-standing policy of the Orange County sheriff's office to employ snitches to illegally coax confessions out of Orange County inmates in exchange for consideration in their cases. (In California, it's illegal to deliberately target inmates with lawyers and formal charges in that manner.)

The informants, it turned out, were a small part of a much larger scandal that saw inmates extracting (often falsified) information from cellmates with the knowledge of some prosecutors.

Informant testimony has proven to be one of the leading contributing factors to wrongful convictions around the country, according to the Innocence Project.

Ebrahim Baytieh, who’d long served in the district attorney’s office, ultimately turned over to Smith's defense in 2019 a police recording of an interview with one of Smith's cellmates which showed there were actually three informants in the cell with Smith. Baytieh said he turned over the recording as soon as he learned about it, but was ultimately fired from his position for his role following an internal investigation, according to the Register.

He's since been elected a judge, according to the Register.

Then-newly-elected District Attorney Todd Spitzer subsequently asked a judge to overturn Smith's original murder conviction because of the misconduct. None of the allegedly involved deputies — including Wert — were willing to testify about the case after the informant scandal, which the judge said contributed to his decision to overturn the conviction.

However, Superior Court Judge Patrick Donohue ordered Smith to face a retrial for Haugen’s murder.

Smith will not face another trial for the solicitation charges.

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