In December 2000, after spending 14 years on Florida's death row,
Frank Lee Smith was finally cleared of the rape and murder of 8-year-old
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
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? In
"Requiem for Frank Lee Smith," award-winning producer Ofra Bikel explores these and other questions as she tracks the investigation, trial, and post-conviction appeals in the Smith case.
There were no eyewitnesses to Shandra Whitehead's murder, just her mother's
glimpse of a man's shoulders as he fled the family's Fort Lauderdale home on the night of the murder 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 said they spotted 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.
The man outside Lowe's house was Frank Lee Smith, 38, who had been released from prison just a few years before, in 1981, after being convicted of murder. When he was in his early teens, Smith also had been convicted of manslaughter. All told, he had been incarcerated for 15 years of his life. 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 and 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
Through interviews with detectives, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and two
law professors who closely followed the Smith case, Bikel
traces the elements in the investigation, trial and post-conviction appeals
process that raise disturbing questions about the actions of police and
For example, shortly after Florida 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 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. At the time of Shandra Whitehead's
murder, Walsh learned, Mosley was back on the streets. Mosley 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. She was also stricken with
remorse for implicating Frank Lee Smith.
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.
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 line-ups, lead
Det. Richard Scheff -- who was nominated for Deputy of the Month for solving
the Whitehead case -- now testified that there had been a third line-up that
included Mosley. Lowe did not identify Mosley at that time, Scheff testified.
Based on Det. Scheff's testimony regarding the third line-up -- 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
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
"I didn't get a chance to even ask him is he upset with me, and that's
something that's 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, who uncovered much of Frank Lee Smith's life
story in the course of his investigation, tells FRONTLINE that the last
time he visited Smith in prison, Smith was essentially naked and strapped to a
hospital gurney. He was dehydrated, Walsh says, and looked as though he were
starving. He was dying of cancer.
"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."
home + eight things to know + closer look + smith's long hard life + ofra bikel
producer chat + introduction + discussion + video + links & readings
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation