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Alleged mistaken-identity killing going to trial

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BOSTON — Four years after Rebecca Payne's slaying, the parents of the Northeastern University student came face to face Monday with the man authorities say killed the 22-year-old woman in a case of mistaken identity.

Clutching framed photos of their daughter, Virginia and Nicholas Payne of New Milford, Conn., watched suspect Cornell Smith's arraignment from a Boston courtroom's front row.

Smith, a 30-year-old convicted drug dealer, pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, armed assault in a dwelling and unlawful firearm possession.

His lawyer Jeffrey Karp said later that his client also was the victim of a mistaken identity and looked forward to exoneration at trial. The attorney wouldn't offer more details about the defense strategy.

Assistant District Attorney Ian Polumbaum said Payne took the train home from her job at a seafood place, settling down in her Boston apartment after midnight on May 20, 2008.

The prosecutor said Smith invaded the student's apartment by climbing onto its second-floor balcony at 3:30 a.m. and unleashing a fatal battery of gunshots. Smith mistook Payne for a woman he had gotten into a physical fight with several days earlier who lived the same building, Polumbaum said.

A drug customer of Smith's who drove him to the homicide scene helped him flee, according to the prosecutor. That driver also is facing charges after authorities said he perjured himself before the grand jury that indicted Smith in April.

Smith was out on bail at the time of Payne's homicide following a drug arrest in February 2008. He now faces a maximum of life in prison without parole for the murder charge alone.

Authorities said it took four years to file the murder charge because witnesses were reluctant to cooperate with police at first.

But three months after the student's death, police again arrested Smith on drug charges after Boston detectives saw him carry out a crack deal.

That December, a state jury found Smith guilty of distributing drugs, and a judge sentenced him to 12 to 15 years in prison in connection with the February 2008 case.

After that, federal authorities got an indictment connected to Smith's August 2008 drug arrest. He pleaded guilty to a drug charge before a federal judge sentenced him to 12 1/2 years in prison. Authorities said he's now serving his state and federal sentences concurrently in federal prison.

Before his federal sentencing, Smith's attorney at the time portrayed him as a drug addict who sold narcotics to support his own habit after growing up in a household where his mother and stepfather beat him. He started using alcohol at age 8 and using marijuana and cocaine at 13 before dropping out of school in 10th grade, a defense memo said.

Rebecca Payne died after just finishing her junior year at Northeastern, where she was studying to be an athletic trainer with plans of going on to become an orthopedic surgeon.

Her parents said Monday they plan to leave the United States because it is too difficult for them to hear reports of other homicides and think of more parents suffering as they have.

Virginia Payne, a Seychelles native, said she was a police officer there for nearly 12 years and never carried a gun. Nicholas Payne, a native of England, said their daughter also wrote on a social networking page before her death about violence in the United States.

"I love America for all the opportunities it has given me," she wrote, "But I hate it because of all the guns."