Man finally released after McHenry murder conviction overturned 3 times

  • Kenneth Smith, 45, puts his arm around attorney David Jimenez-Ekman after walking out of Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner on Thursday. A federal appeals court last week affirmed Smith's exoneration, but McHenry County police and prosecutors still believe he is guilty of murder.

    Kenneth Smith, 45, puts his arm around attorney David Jimenez-Ekman after walking out of Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner on Thursday. A federal appeals court last week affirmed Smith's exoneration, but McHenry County police and prosecutors still believe he is guilty of murder. Corryn Brock for Shaw Media

  • Kenneth Smith, 45, walks out of Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner on Thursday with members of the law firm Jenner & Block of Chicago, who helped secure his release after serving nearly 20 years for the 2001 murder of Raul Briseno.

    Kenneth Smith, 45, walks out of Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner on Thursday with members of the law firm Jenner & Block of Chicago, who helped secure his release after serving nearly 20 years for the 2001 murder of Raul Briseno. Corryn Brock for Shaw Media

  • Raul Briseno

    Raul Briseno

 
 
Updated 5/7/2021 7:29 PM

After being convicted by three juries and serving nearly 20 years in prison for the 2001 murder of a McHenry restaurant owner, Kenneth Smith walked out of Lawrence Correctional Center as a free man Thursday.

As the sun began to peek through gray skies outside the Sumner prison, the 45-year-old Smith hugged his attorney, and they talked about what was left in his commissary account, his new shoes and where to meet up with his family.

 

Then, one of the legal associates called Smith's mom and said, "We're here in the parking lot with Ken."

His mom could be heard shouting joyfully.

"Hey, Mama, how are you?" Smith asked. His mom: "Freedom!"

Smith's attorneys filed motions calling for his "immediate" release after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit last week upheld the March 10, 2020, decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois exonerating him. On Thursday, the 7th Circuit sent Smith's attorneys from the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block an order issuing his immediate release without conditions.

"We are grateful that, at long last, the justice system recognizes Ken Smith's innocence, ending his almost two-decade nightmare," said Smith's attorney, David Jimenez-Ekman. "The evidence of Ken's innocence is overwhelming, and it is a tragedy it took so long for the justice system to acknowledge that. Ken looks forward to the hard and bittersweet task of rebuilding his life. But the nightmare continues for Jennifer McMullan, also innocent but languishing in prison, and the family of Raul Briseno, whose real killers remain unpunished."

Smith was serving a 67-year prison sentence for the 2001 murder of Raul Briseno, 34, owner of Burrito Express.

Although Smith and his supporters maintained throughout the years that he was innocent, Briseno's family, McHenry police and McHenry County prosecutors stand by their belief that he is guilty of the crime.

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McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally criticized the federal courts' decision to overturn Smith's conviction.

"We are increasingly distressed at the recent trend of remote judges, years and decades later, elevating their own judgments of selectively considered evidence and witness credibility over those of ordinary citizens (who served on the juries that convicted Smith) to reach preferred case outcomes," he said last week.

Also convicted in connection with the 2001 murder was McMullan of Round Lake, who is serving 27 years for murder and attempted armed robbery. McMullan also is appealing her conviction and is being represented by the Illinois Innocence Project.

Stephanie Kamel, attorney with the Illinois Innocence Project, said she is "pleased" to hear of Smith's release. "We will continue to advocate on behalf of our client Jennifer McMullan's innocence."

Justin Houghtaling of Burlington, Wisconsin, and David Collett of Spring Grove also were convicted in connection with Briseno's murder.

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