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Squatter gets new trial in fatal ‘95 Jamaica fire

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Edwin Smith, 40, originally from St. Albans, was found guilty of murder in the second degree for setting the fire and was sentenced to 17 years to life in prison.

Smith, a convicted drug dealer, lit a makeshift candle to keep himself and his girlfriend warm on Dec. 31, 1995, and the two went to sleep inside the dilapidated south Jamaica building where the two had sought shelter, according to court records. A blanket hanging nearby caught fire and the two fled before firefighters arrived, court records showed.

Clancy, whose wife was expecting her first child at the time, died in the building when the floor collapsed beneath him.

Queens State Supreme Court Justice Robert Hanophy, who presided over the initial trial, said Smith's old attorney did not advise him about the ramifications of numerous plea bargain deals offered by the Queens district attorney's office.

Michael Mays was Smith's attorney in the initial trial.

"Mays at best merely conveyed the offers made to the defendant when all the parties were in open court and Mays never counseled the defendant on the advisable of accepting or rejecting the offered pleas," said Hanophy in his decision,.

"I discussed with my client every plea bargain given to me," Mays said in an interview.

Mays said the judge made him the scapegoat because the judge thought Smith's sentence was too harsh and wanted the case reopened.

Smith said during the hearing that he never would have gone to trial if he had understood that if he was convicted of the underlying arson he would also be convicted of murder, according to Hanophy's decision. The judge said several offers were made throughout the course of the trial, including one plea bargain in exchange for a five to 10-year jail term and a later one for five to 15 years in prison.

In 1996 Hanophy sentenced Smith to 17 years in prison because he was "no stranger to the criminal justice system." Hanophy cited Smith's previous felony conviction for possession of 67 vials of crack cocaine.

"We are very pleased, the judge made a difficult and courageous decision," said Ronald Kuby, Smith's current attorney. "My client is immensely relieved."

Brown said he would appeal Hanophy's decision to the state appellate court.

"The record is clear that the defendant received effective assistance of competent counsel at all stages of the proceedings," said Brown in a press release. " Indeed, the court itself went to great lengths on the record to explain to the defendant what was at stake in not accepting the people's plea."

If the appeal fails, Smith will be retried in State Supreme Court, said a spokeswoman for the DA's office. If the DA is successful, Smith will have to serve out his sentence.

"I think the judge missed the mark on this," said Mays, who believes the DA's office has a very good chance of winning the appeal. "This has obviously hurt my reputation, but it's not the truth."

Smith testified that he was given the services of Legal Aid attorney Barbara Byne after he was arrested. But while in prison at Riker's Island, he received a visit from attorney Michael Mays and his wife Tami Mays, according to testimony at the hearing.

Smith said Michael Mays told him they were from the neighborhood and would represent him for free. He said Mays persisted and said over and over that it was better to have a private attorney than a court-appointed lawyer. Smith said he eventually agreed.

The initial trial took 10 months. Smith's conviction and sentence were praised by many of Clancy's colleagues, but criticized by homeless advocates. In January 1999 the Second Division of the State Appellate Court upheld Smith's conviction.

"Edwin Smith was the victim of prejudice and hostility because of who he is, not because of what he did," Kuby said during the 1999 appeal.

Every New Year's Eve, Clancy's former colleagues at Engine Co. 298 and Ladder 127 in Jamaica hold a memorial service at 149-06 97th Avenue, the scene of the fire.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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