MIAMI (CBSMiami) – “Please before you take me to prison please before you take my life, just give me a polygraph.” Twenty-one-year-old Taiwan Smart was desperate for Miami police detectives to believe him.
“I’m asking you, sir, please from the bottom of your heart please help me take a lie detector test,” Smart continued. “I know you got a family sir, imagine it was you in this situation and nobody believed you but you knew in your heart [you were innocent], and you asked for this one chance to prove yourself.”
The detective listened stoically.
“I don’t want to go to jail for two murders I didn’t do,” Smart cried. “I didn’t kill nobody.”
But detectives didn’t believe him and in November 2009, Smart was arrested for the execution style slayings of his two friends, Jonathan Volcy, 18, and Raynathan Ray, 14.
Smart’s case was featured on an episode of the highly popular TV show The First 48 – which follows homicide detectives on actual cases. The reality show often focuses on Miami crimes and offers viewers a unique insight into the thinking of detectives during their investigations.
In the case of Smart, detectives concluded almost immediately after talking to him that Smart was guilty and nothing he could say would change their minds.
“You got your man,” the episode show’s a homicide supervisor telling his detectives. “He’s in the box. You just got to break him.”
For more than twelve hours detectives Fabio Sanchez and TC Cepero tried to get Smart to admit he did the killings. But Smart maintained his innocence. He told detectives he was hanging out with Volcy and Ray in their ground floor apartment in Little Haiti. Volcy dealt drugs out of the apartment – through a back window – and Smart freely admitted he helped.
On the night of the shootings, Smart said there was a tap on the apartment window from someone looking to buy marijuana from Volcy. Smart went to the window to get the man’s money when a second man appeared.
“Somebody comes running around the corner with a gun,” he said.
Smart said he dove to the floor, heard gunfire and then sprinted out the back
“If I would have stayed in there sir, I would have been on the floor dead with those boys,” he explained. “But I didn’t see anybody get shot, I didn’t see my homeboys get hit, I didn’t see no bullets.”
Detectives hammered away at Smart.
“You are going to stick by 100 percent to your story,” Cepero said.
“Yes, that’s the truth, the honest truth,” Smart replied.
Detectives wondered why Smart waited three days before calling detectives and agreeing to speak to them
“I was scared, I was really scared,” Smart said.
When detectives doubted his story, he offered to take a polygraph exam.
“Are you willing to give me your DNA right now,” Sanchez asked.
“Yeah, go get the swabs,” Smart said. “I’ll give you DNA, blood samples, I’ll take a lie detector, and I’ll do it right now.”
Nevertheless, detectives became fixated on Smart because he said the first shots came from outside the window. But crime scene folks determined the shots that killed the two teens were fired by some inside the apartment. They called Smart a liar and a stone cold killer.
“Now you know what I’m thinking, now you know what’s in my head,” Cepero screamed.
Again Smart asked the detectives to give him a polygraph if they doubted him. The detectives assured him they would give him the test – but that it would take time to set up.
Nine hours into the interrogation, at around two in the morning, detectives admitted they themselves lied to Smart. There would be no polygraph exam as they had promised.
“You’re not going to pass,” Sanchez said.
Cepero was even more blunt saying he didn’t need to give Smart a polygraph since he already knew Smart was a liar.
Once again Smart held to his story.
“You are not going to break [me],” he said. “The truth will set me free and it is going to set me free.”
“And it also could put your ass in jail,” Sanchez added.
Turns out Sanchez was right. Even though was telling the truth he still went to jail.
Despite there being no physical evidence, no eyewitnesses, no murder weapon, no confession, or direct evidence of any kind, Smart – who had no history of violence – was charged on November 18, 2009, with two counts of second degree murder.
Smart recalled how he felt as he was locked in his jail cell.
“Suicide was on my mind,” he told CBS4 investigator Jim DeFede. “I thought I might as well just kill myself. I can’t face this. I can’t deal with this, I might as well die.”
In jail he would be placed in a cell with more than 30 other inmates – many of whom themselves were charged with murder or other violent crimes. When he told them he was innocent, the other inmates would smile and say they too were innocent.
“That’s one of the things that scared me as well,” he said. “Who’s going to hear an innocent man crying in a room full of people saying they are innocent – when you hear everyone saying they are innocent, it’s like I know nobody is going to believe me.”
One person who did was his court appointed attorney, Marlene Montaner.
“I was convinced as soon as he told me his story that he was innocent, that I had an innocent client,” she said. “I started breathing hard at that moment because it is very difficult to have an innocent client, charged with a double homicide. I know that the fact that he is innocent doesn’t mean he’s going to come out.”
If they needed a miracle it arrived more than a year later when Arsenio Carter was arrested for armed robbing and placed in Smart’s cell. He said Carter took an unusual interest in him.
“`Hey ain’t you that kid from Little Haiti that got into trouble for that thing,’” Smart quoted Carter as saying. “And I was like, `Yeah.” And he was, `You don’t remember me, I used to buy weed from your friend Nathan sometimes.’”
Smart said Carter repeatedly sought him out to talk.
“Yeah, like some sociopathic type behavior, like he had to be close to me,” Smart said.
Smart said he tried to say as little as possible around Carter. “As I’m telling him what little I did tell him, `Yeah I’m in jail for murder because I was with my friends,’ he’s kind of laughing. And I’m asking him, `What’s funny?’ And he’s like, `No that’s crazy man, that’s messed up how they did you.’”
A few weeks passed. Suddenly Smart was told that Carter had been asking other inmates for a jailhouse knife, so he could kill Smart. Smart confronted Carter and the two men fought until guards broke it up – taking Carter to another cell.
That’s when Smart learned something extraordinary: Carter had allegedly admitted to his one of his cellmates that he was the person who shot Jonathan Volcy and Raynathan Ray.
“I was like no one would ever believe this, that this happened,” Smart said. “This is like on of those things that happens in a movie. You don’t hear about this stuff happening every day.”
Smart immediately called Montaner.
Asked for her reaction when Smart told her the man responsible for killing Volcy and Ray was in his cell, she responded: “That God had stepped in to help. That’s what I thought.”
The account Carter allegedly told the other inmates explained everything detectives had missed. Carter allegedly said that as his friend went to the window to distract the folks inside; he came running up with a gun, shooting at Taiwan through the open window. At least two bullet holes are found in the direction of where Smart was running toward the back door.
“There are stray shots that go other places in the apartment,” Montaner said.
Unable to hit Smart, Carter he turned his gun on Raynathan and Jonathan, who were both frozen by the unfolding events. Carter then apparently threatened to shoot the teens if they didn’t open the front door, allowing Carter and his buddy in. The teens complied and the gunmen entered the apartment. Once they got what they wanted, the two teens were shot in the back of the head.
“Those kids were executed while they are on their knees,” Montaner said.
Montaner collected sworn statements from the inmates in Smart’s cell. Usually inmates want something in return for cooperating, Montaner said, but in this case no asked for anything. They just wanted to help someone who they realized really was innocent.
But Smart had another problem. Would Carter try and carry out on his threat to kill Smart by putting a contract out on him in the jail.
“So now, not only am I innocent, now I got to look over my shoulders cause now he know I know who he is,” he said.
Months went by as Montaner begged prosecutors and police to review the new evidence. Finally, a new prosecutor, Marie Mato, took over the case and gave them what they had long been looking for.
“After lots of conversation, lots of communications, Marie [Mato] says she’s going to let him take a polygraph,” Montaner said. “Finally. She agrees to a polygraph.”
On June 6, 2011, nineteen months since he last saw them, Smart was back in a room with detectives Sanchez and Cepero – only this time he was joined by his attorney and a Miami Dade Police polygrapher.
“Finally we’re going to prove what could have been proved all this time,” Smart said. “Now everyone is going to know I’m not lying.”
Smart passed his lie detector test. A week later the state dropped the charges, with Prosecutor Mato noting in her closeout memo that not only was there not enough evidence to gain a conviction against Smart but that it appeared Smart was actually innocent.
Carter, who is serving 35 years in prison for an unrelated armed robbery and kidnapping, has not been charged with the murders of the two teens.
Last month Smart hired civil attorney Joe Klock and filed a lawsuit against the Miami Police Department for wrongful arrest, claiming detectives merely wanted to make an arrest so they could look good on The First 48.
When Smart stepped out of the jail on June 15, 2011, Montaner was waiting for him with Smarts mother and other family members. He also had a chance to see his son, who by then was nearly five years old.
“He was like, `Daddy you were in jail for killing two people.’ And he kept saying it for a couple of days, `My daddy killed two people’ to his niece and nephew. And I said, `Don’t say that.’ And he said, `I saw it on TV.”
The First 48 Episode with Taiwan Smart was often repeated on A&E and was offered for years on their website. Only last month, after repeated calls by Smart’s attorneys, did they take the episode down.
“I don’t want to be remembered as the kid who killed his friends because I didn’t do that,” he said.
Today Smart stays out of his old neighborhoods, but recently agreed to take us to the apartment complex on what would have been Jonathan Volcy’s 23rd birthday. He said it was weird seeing the apartment.
“Yeah, it makes me feel shaky a little bit, my breathing, just being this close to it,” he said staring at the front door.
Asked if he was partly responsible for what he went through because of the way he was living his life back then – including selling drugs.
“That’s what a person’s opinion would be from the outside looking in,” he said. “I don’t judge people [I hung out with], those are my brothers. You don’t see it like that when you are from where I’m from – all we got is each other sometimes.”
Smart realizes he could have just as easily been killed that night.
“In a sense I did die in this place, people say when they meet me now I’m not the same person anymore,” he said. “I can never be that guy again.”