The suspect in a notorious 2008 local killing of a college student confessed in court on Feb. 13, where prosecutors revealed that they believe the crime was a drug-related case of mistaken identity.
Northeastern University student Rebecca Payne, 22, was shot to death in her apartment at 170 Parker Hill Ave. on May 20, 2008. The shock of the crime was increased by the fact that several neighbors heard the fatal shots, but no one called the police.
The killer, Cornell Smith, 33, was charged in 2012 with first-degree murder. However, prosecutors say the case was weakened by the death of a key witness since then. Smith pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and unlawful possession of a firearm, and was sentencedto 18 to 20 years in state prison, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office.
“The Payne family has spent seven years waiting, wondering if they would find justice for their daughter,” said Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley in a press release. “Her killer’s unequivocal admission of guilt gives them a sense of finality, and I hope this 20-year prison sentence provides some small measure of accountability in the face of their loss.”
Prosecutors say Smith was a drug dealer who was feuding with a rival dealer and suspected she was about to inform the police about him. The rival dealer “bore a striking resemblance to Payne” and lived in the same building, prosecutors say.
On the night of the killing, Smith drove to the Parker Hill Avenue building around 3:30 a.m., climbed a balcony, and entered Payne’s apartment through an unlocked door. He then shot her five times in the chest and legs.
Prosecutors say the man who drove Smith to and from the scene of the crime was Michael Balba, 58, of Billerica. Balba previously faced perjury charges in the case and had otherwise been granted immunity in exchange for his testimony. However, those charges were dropped following the death of the unidentified witness, who reportedly was the third man who joined Smith in traveling to and from the crime scene.
Smith is also serving a federal prison sentence on an unrelated drug conviction. According to prosecutors, he was out on bail on another drug charge at the time he killed Payne.