2 charged in NU student’s 2008 death

22-year-old senior was shot in Mission Hill; one suspect already in prison for unrelated crime

The DA called Rebecca Payne an innocent victim “in every sense.’’

For four years, Virginia and Nicholas Payne could not mourn the loss of their only child.

Rebecca Payne, a 22-year-old Northeastern University student, was slain in her Mission Hill apartment in May 2008, shot in the legs and the chest. Police had not apprehended a killer.

“Nobody was charged with the murder,’’ said Virginia Payne, who lives with her husband in New Milford, Conn., “and because of that, we could not grieve properly.’’


Now, they may have answers.

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Two people are facing charges in Payne’s death, and her parents said investigators have told them that the killing was the result of a mistaken identity in a drug-related altercation.

Cornell Smith, 30, has been indicted and charged with first-degree murder in Payne’s killing, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley announced Sunday. Smith, a former Boston resident who is serving a 12-year federal prison sentence for an unrelated drug conviction, was also charged with armed assault in a dwelling and unlawful possession of a firearm.

Cornell Smith, 30, is already serving time in a drug case. Authorities say the Mission Hill killing was drug-related.

Michael Balba, 55, of Billerica was arrested Saturday and charged with four counts of perjury, accused of lying to a Suffolk County grand jury during the long investigation into Payne’s death.

Balba is scheduled to be arraigned Monday in Suffolk Superior Court. Smith, who is being held in a prison out of state, will be arraigned once he is brought to Boston.


Payne did not know Smith and did nothing to bring about her own death, Conley said.

“She was, in every sense, an innocent victim,’’ Conley said in the statement.

Jake Wark, a spokesman for Conley, said he could not provide any further details on the motive for the killing or how investigators came to charge Smith and Balba.

In a statement released Sunday, Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis of Boston expressed appreciation for the hard work of prosecutors and detectives who pursued the case, and also for the patience shown by the victim’s parents.

“We only hope that news of today’s development provides some semblance of peace for Rebecca’s loved ones, who continue to cope with their unimaginable loss,’’ Davis said.


Payne, who was a senior at Northeastern University, grew up in New Milford, where she ran track and played field hockey and tennis in high school.

She was a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees. In college, she studied to become an athletic trainer.

She was shot in her Parker Hill Avenue apartment early on May 20, 2008. Neighbors heard gunshots and screams but did not call police. The building manager discovered her, hours later, because her door had been left ajar.

Payne would have turned 26 last week, her parents said.

On Friday, the parents met with Conley, Davis, and investigators and prosecutors in the case, who informed them that they would be charging two suspects.

“Our prayers were answered,’’ said Virginia Payne.

Nicholas Payne said the couple had not given up hope that someone would be held accountable for killing their daughter. They had been prepared for a long wait before an indictment, he said, because of the complexity of the case.

“We feel [investigators] were very invested in the case, and we’re happy that it’s reached this stage,’’ Nicholas Payne said.

In the last four years, those who loved the 22-year-old have worked to keep her memory alive.

The Eastern Athletic Trainers’ Association established a scholarship fund in her honor for aspiring athletic trainers.

Nicholas Payne, who was born in England, ran a 2010 campaign against a five-term Republican incumbent for the Connecticut House of Representatives, focusing his platform on overhauling gun and drug laws. He lost, but became the most successful third-party candidate for a state Senate seat in Connecticut’s history.

Nicholas and Virginia, who was born in the Seychelles, have planned Rebecca’s March for Peace and Justice, set for May 20, a walk from her Mission Hill apartment to City Hall Plaza in memory of Rebecca and other victims of violence.

The couple plan to attend Balba’s arraignment on Monday, and will attend Smith’s trial. But after that, they said, they plan to leave the United States.

The country that has been their home since 1979 has become a source of bitterness.

“In a way, we have no ties to this country anymore,’’ Nicholas Payne said. “It is painful to stay here. There are extremely painful memories here.’’

They hope to move to the Seychelles. Once they are settled, they want to open a small tennis camp for local youth in Rebecca’s honor.

“We worked hard all our lives to give our daughter a good life in this country,’’ Virginia Payne said.

“And now we are going to give up everything to move out of the country, to start all over again,’’ she said.

Globe correspondent Alexander C. Kaufman contributed to this report. Martine Powers can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.