In December 2000, after spending fourteen years on Florida's Death Row, Frank Lee Smith was finally cleared of the rape and murder of eight-year-old Shandra Whitehead. Like nearly 100 prisoners before him, Smith's exoneration came as a result of sophisticated DNA testing unavailable when he was first convicted. But for Frank Lee Smith, the good news came too late: Ten months before he was proven innocent, Smith died of cancer in prison, just steps away from Florida's electric chair. How did Frank Lee Smith end up on Death Row for a crime he didn't commit? And why was he allowed to die there despite possible evidence of his innocence? Award-winning producer Ofra Bikel explores these and other questions in FRONTLINE's "Requiem for Frank Lee Smith," airing Thursday, April 11, at 9 P.M. on PBS (check local listings).
"I can understand how innocent people
can end up in prison for something they did not do," says Bikel, whose
documentary "A Case for Innocence" led to the exoneration and release of
three longtime inmates as a result of DNA testing. "What I cannot understand--and
what drives me crazy--is how people in prison, sometimes on Death Row,
cannot get out even when they are innocent." Bikel was recently credited
with winning freedom and a new trial for 21-year-old Terence Garner, When
her FRONTLINE film "An Ordinary Crime" presented strong evidence of Garner's
innocence in a 1997 shooting and
robbery for which he'd been sentenced to more than thirty years in prison. "I'm thrilled about Terence," she says, "but I can't help thinking of all the other Terences out there about whom I didn't make documentaries." In the case of Frank Lee Smith, there were no eyewitnesses to the murder of Shandra Whitehead--just her mother's glimpse of a man's shoulders as he fled the family's Fort Lauderdale home that night in April 1985. What's more, there was no physical evidence to tie Frank Lee Smith to the crime. What prosecutors did have were reports from two people--Chiquita Lowe and Gerald Davis, both 19--each of whom reported spotting a scraggly-haired, delirious black man with a droopy eye in the neighborhood at the time of the crime. Not long after the two teens helped police develop a composite sketch of the man they saw, Lowe's family excitedly told her that the man in the sketch was standing outside their home, trying to sell them a television set. They urged her to call the police.
outside Lowe's house was Frank Lee Smith, 38, a former convict out on parole
after serving fifteen years in jail for manslaughter and a murder committed
while he was a teenager. Based upon Lowe's identification, Smith was arrested
and charged with Whitehead's murder. Lowe was to be the star witness at
Smith's trial, but she began to have doubts. "When I went into the courtroom
seen [Smith], he was too skinny, too tall, and he did not have the droopy eye," she tells FRONTLINE.
Despite her misgivings, Lowe confirmed her identification of Smith at the trial. "I was pressured by my family, people that's in my neighborhood, and the police officer," she says. "They kept telling me that I'm the only one that seen that man that night." Based mainly upon Lowe's testimony, Smith was convicted and sentenced to death.But shortly after the state scheduled Smith's execution in 1989, defense team investigator Jeff Walsh came across the name of Eddie Lee Mosley, a suspect in a number of rapes and murders of young black women that had occurred in Shandra Whitehead's neighborhood.
Mosley was well-known to local law enforcement. In fact, two local police officers had begun to detect a pattern between local murders and Mosley's release from prison or mental hospitals. "When [Mosley is] incarcerated there are no unsolved rape/murders of black females in northwest Fort Lauderdale," police officer Kevin Allen tells FRONTLINE. "Immediately upon his release or within thirty days, we find a black female [murdered] at the rate of one a month until he is incarcerated again. And that history...repeated itself consistently...." At the time of Shandra Whitehead's murder, Walsh learned, Mosley was back on the streets. He was also acquainted with the victim: Shandra's mother was his cousin. But even more striking was his mug shot: Mosley bore an uncanny resemblance to the police sketch of the suspect--droopy eye and all. When Walsh showed Mosley's photo to Chiquita Lowe, she says she immediately recognized the man she saw the night of the murder. "I seen the man like I seen him yesterday," she tells FRONTLINE. "I seen the droopy eye, I see the look on his face and it just shook me up." She was also stricken with remorse for implicating Frank Lee Smith. "This is an innocent person that been to jail,"she says. "This man did not do this, and I feel so bad, so guilty, so ashamed."
Armed with Lowe's sworn affidavit attesting to her incorrect identification, Smith's defense attorneys were optimistic as they went into an evidentiary hearing before the Florida Supreme Court. But the optimism was short lived. In "Frank Lee Smith," FRONTLINE explores allegations that the Florida authorities attempted to discredit Lowe's new testimony by claiming to have shown her Mosley's photo at the time of the murder. Despite having previously testified that Lowe had been shown two lineups, lead Detective Richard Scheff--who was nominated for Deputy of the Month for solving the Whitehead case--now testified that there had been a third lineup that included Mosley. Lowe did not identify Mosley at that time, Scheff testified. Based on Det. Scheff's testimony regarding the third lineup--and Lowe's somewhat halting testimony--the court denied Smith's motion for a new trial. Smith would wait seven years for another hearing. FRONTLINE follows Smith's story through several motions requesting DNA testing, all of which were ultimately denied by the state. The authorities would eventually test Smith's DNA posthumously after Eddie Lee Mosley was linked through DNA tests to two other murders for which an innocent man had been convicted. The results of the belated DNA tests--which confirmed that Shandra Whitehead had been raped and murdered by Eddie Lee Mosley--were of little comfort to Chiquita Lowe."I didn't get a chance to even ask him is he upset with me, and that's something that's really just inside of me, just tearing me apart," she tells FRONTLINE. "If it wasn't for me, he wouldn't have to go through all that torture and torment...I feel that it's my fault."
Defense investigator Walsh tells FRONTLINE that the last time he visited Smith in prison, his client was essentially naked and chained to a hospital gurney. Smith was dehydrated, Walsh says, and looked as though he were starving. "It just goes back to the truth of the matter," Walsh says. "[The authorities] just didn't care about him as a human being at all." Following the broadcast, visit FRONTLINE's Web site at www.pbs.org/frontline for more on this report, including: An interview with producer Ofra Bikel on the background to her investigation of this case; Excerpts from a recent landmark 2002 study on America's death penalty system, including a section of this national report which cites the Frank Lee Smith case; More details on Frank Lee Smith's life prior to being falsely convicted of Shandra Whitehead's murder; Ofra Bikel's interviews with some of the key people involved in this story. "Requiem for Frank Lee Smith" is a FRONTLINE co-production with Ofra Bikel Productions. The producer is Ofra Bikel. The editor is Karen Sim. The associate producer is Ross Tuttle.
is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.