WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Kalvin Michael Smith, a man who spent 20 years behind bars in connection with a violent crime he claimed he did not commit, has been found dead, according to Winston-Salem police.
At about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, police responded for a death investigation on the 100 block of Charleston Court. Winston-Salem Police Chief William Penn held a press conference on Friday and identified the victim as Kalvin Michael Smith, 52, of Winston-Salem.
Police say there is no evidence of foul play or suspicious activity. No word on the cause of death.
The Silk Plant Forest case
Smith was convicted in 1997 of robbery and assaulting Jill Marker at the Silk Plant Forest store in 1995. The assault, described as severe blunt force trauma to the head, left Marker with severe brain injuries.
The Winston-Salem Police Department released a 68-page internal review of the investigation in 2010. In it, WSPD says Marker, who was pregnant at the time, was working alone at the Silk Plant Forest store in the Silas Creek Crossing Shopping Center on the evening of Dec. 9, 1995. Two customers walked in to find her lying in a pool of blood near the back of the store. Marker was able to tell police that she had been hit but not shot.
Police found the cash register open with only loose change remaining. No weapon was found at the store.
Smith’s name was first brought into the investigation when a June 1996 tip to CrimeStoppers alleged that Smith was the person responsible. According to the WSPD report, Smith later admitted that he conspired with another man to rob the store and was there during the assault. He claimed, however, that he did not assault Marker.
A friend of Smith’s reportedly told police that Smith had admitted to her about 20 times that he had assaulted Marker. Others also told police that they had heard him admit to the crime.
Eugene Littlejohn said he was at the Silk Plant Forest with Smith during the robbery and left once a struggle began between Smith and Marker. He said he never saw the attack but claims he heard Smith say that he had to “beat” the woman to get out of the store. The validity of Littlejohn’s testimony became a source of controversy in the case.
Outcry and release
The incident, which became known as the “Silk Plant Forest case,” was the heart of widely-publicized controversy. Smith maintained his innocence throughout his sentence, and advocates argued that his conviction spoke to the prejudice and bias in the criminal justice system.
College students from Wake Forest University, Salem College and Winston-Salem State University protested, calling for Smith’s release in 2016.
“We’re holding the rally to prove his innocence for one but also to prove we have people out in the community that support him,” then-student Jaylon Hervin said at the time. “We wanted it to show moral support and that it’s one issue that we are ready to go to war for.”
A grassroots group known as the Silk Plant Forest Truth Committee pushed for a new trial or challenges to the ruling for 10 years. Much of their pressure focused on the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, then led by Roy Cooper prior to his ascent to governor.
The case was one of three cases explored in the MTV documentary “Unlocking the Truth,” which came out in August 2016.
Smith had found his path to freedom in November 2016, when a judge ruled that Smith’s attorney failed to present evidence that would have led to a shorter prison sentence at the time of his conviction. He was released on Nov. 10, 2016, after serving 20 years of his 29-year sentence.
Life after prison
On March 31, 2017, he was injured when three bullets pierced the side of his house on the 900 block of North Jackson Avenue. He was found on the sidewalk suffering from a gunshot wound and was taken to a hospital in critical condition.
In August 2017, he was accused of another assault on Weatherwood Court. Police were called to the scene of the 100 block of Weatherwood Court shortly before 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 27. Smith is accused of punching a woman after she stepped in to stop a fight between Smith and his girlfriend, police said in a press release. Smith turned himself in after warrants for his arrest were issued.