requiem for frank lee smith
homeeight thingscloser lookofra bikeldiscussion
photo of a prison fence and towerreadings and links

Related FRONTLINE reports by producer Ofra Bikel on the U.S. criminal justice system:

Snitch (January 1999): An investigation into how informants have become a key part of prosecutorial strategy in the drug war

The Case for Innocence (January 2000): An investigation into why inmates remain in prison despite DNA evidence that could exonerate them

An Ordinary Crime (January 2002): An investigation into whether an innocent man is in prison merely for having the wrong name

Reporting from The Miami Herald on the Frank Lee Smith Case and Florida's Flawed Criminal Justice System

For 14 Years, Justice Failed A Man Condemned To Die
"[T]he Smith conviction stands as a stunning miscarriage of justice ... [He] languished through 14 years of distortions, delays, omissions and misrepresentations. The entire justice system failed him." (June 25, 2001)

Scenario Can't Justify Condemning Wrong Man
"It's easy to understand why Frank Lee Smith was a prime suspect. Here was some nasty, incoherent ex-con with two previous murder raps on his record (which the prosecution managed to get before the jury, wiping out any lingering doubts by the jurors about his guilt in this case). A witness tells police she thinks she saw this ex-con at the murder scene. Actual evidence became unnecessary." (July 8, 2001)
Cries of Innocence by 'Killer' Cleared by DNA Went Unheard
"In a letter from Death Row, Smith wrote, "Dying for a crime someone else's hands committed is the thought that (has) killed me already." Nobody listened. Until Thursday, that is, when it was learned that FBI tests had shown that Smith's DNA does not match semen found on the body of the 8-year-old victim." (Dec. 16, 2000)
One Detective's Behavior Reveals Larger Truths
"[T]he formula that the Broward Sheriff's Office employed to convict Frank Lee Smith -- bullying witnesses into false identification and extracting a "confession" from an innocent man -- takes on an unsettling familiarity." (March 4, 2001)
Op Ed: DNA's Corollary
"[I]f no one will be held accountable for Frank Lee Smith's life and death in prison, police and prosecutors need to take to heart its lessons about the fragility of justice and how they crushed it 14 years ago by not looking further for a suspect." (July 11, 2001)
Florida's Flawed Death Sentences Lead U.S.
"Florida is home to five of 15 counties that impose the death penalty most frequently across America, ranking it among a handful of states at highest risk for wrongful convictions and making it the nation's leader in sending innocent people to Death Row. Those are the conclusions of a Columbia University Law School team in its massive study released in early February 2002." (Feb. 11, 2002)
Handling Of Behan Case Part Of A Pattern, BSO Critics Say
"Most of the investigators who built the disputed cases remain in positions of authority at Broward Sheriff's Office. Their personnel files brim with letters of congratulation for the arrests." (March 4, 2002)
Broward To Review DNA Of 28 Death Row Inmates
"The rush toward DNA analysis of criminal cases in Broward began in December, when genetic testing cleared Frank Lee Smith. Concern escalated with accusations that a Broward Sheriff's homicide investigator, Richard Scheff, had lied under oath in the Smith case. Scheff's role in that conviction is under investigation." (May 5, 2001)

Other Readings on the U.S. Criminal Justice System

'A Broken System, Part II'
This summarizes the second part of an in-depth analysis of the death penalty in America, conducted by researchers at Columbia University's Law School and released in February 2002. (It is often referred to as the "Liebman study," after law professor and co-author James Liebman.) The authors address two questions: Why is there so much error in the death-penalty system? And how can those errors be prevented?

Read the section on how errors plaguing America's capital punishment system have weakened public support for capital punishment, even among its most steadfast defenders, and how political support for the death penalty is waning, with major campaigns against the death penalty now being waged in 20 states. Statistics and facts are cited supporting this conclusion.

Read the section where the authors concede that their study under-reports the errors in capital-punishment cases. This section specifically cites the case of Frank Lee Smith as an example. Because the courts never determined that "serious error" led to Smith's incarceration, the authors were not able to count his case as one of the many wrongful convictions.

Finally, the first part of the study, released in June 2000, found that of the 4,578 capital sentences that were appealed from 1973 to 1995, fully 68 percent were overturned by higher courts due to "serious error" -- errors that were mostly due to the defendants' "egregiously incompetent" legal representation and/or the suppression of exculpatory evidence by prosecutors and law-enforcement officials.

"The Myth of Fingerprints: DNA and the End of Innocence"
Writer Gregg Easterbrook in this 2000 New Republic article argues that expanding the use of DNA evidence in the criminal justice system should give opponents of the death penalty pause. That's because while DNA testing might free some on death row who are wrongly convicted, the broad use of the tests will help make Americans more comfortable with the death penalty since many of the tests will indeed confirm the convict is guilty. Responses to the Liebman Report is administered by Justice For All, a group that lobbies on crime reform issues. This page of its website includes various material analyzing why the death penalty is warranted and why attacks on it in recent years are unjustified. In particular, this site offers in here in this section responses to "A Broken System," the 2002 report co-authored by Jim Liebman at Columbia University that chronicles the many serious errors that have plagued capital-punishment cases throughout the country.
Trial and Error: How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win
A five-part series (published Jan. 10-14, 1999), this Chicago Tribune investigation found that since 1963, 381 people convicted of homicide had their verdicts overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. (Sixty-seven of those 381 were sentenced to death.) In "Break Rules, Be Promoted," the authors describe a system whereby three Cook County, Ill., prosecutors who had received harsh rebukes from the Illinois Appellate Court for misconduct had been subsequently promoted and even elected judges. Other articles in the series trace some of the worst cases of prosecutorial misconduct on record. (*Registration required)
Win At All Costs
In this 10-part series (Nov-Dec. 1998), a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigative team reports on alleged judicial misconduct and a "law enforcement culture that has allowed the pursuit of a conviction to replace the pursuit of justice, no matter what the cost."
The Wrong Man
In this in-depth November 1999 report in The Atlantic Monthly, author Alan Berlow describes several cases in which innocent men were sentenced to death, and then ultimately exonerated. Berlow argues that inept defense attorneys, dishonest police and prosecutors -- who may or may not believe they have the culprit, racial bias, false confessions, eyewitness error, and an appeals process that's becoming increasingly inaccessible, are the many factors to blame for miscarriages of justice.
In this August 2000 American Lawyer article, author Steve Weinberg chronicles the case of Ellen Reasonover, who was wrongly convicted of murder and served 16 years in prison. He describes how one dogged defense attorney became convinced that the prosecutor had allowed false testimony at Reasonover's trial and had misled the jury in his closing argument.

Two Groups Involved in Criminal Justice and Capital Punishment Issues

The Moratorium Campaign
Sister Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States," is chair of the Moratorium Campaign, a nonprofit organization that seeks to obtain a moratorium on the death penalty. Through the "State Counts" section of the campaign's website, you can find information about your state's position on the death penalty, along with other information such as whether your state will execute a mentally retarded person, how many people on death row have been exonerated, the race of death row inmates, and other data.
The Innocence Project
A nonprofit legal clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City, the Innocence Project's goal is to give pro bono legal assistance to inmates who are challenging their convictions based on DNA testing of evidence. The website for the Innocence Project also publishes information about all types of wrongful convictions, including articles such as "Causes and Remedies of Wrongful Convictions" and "Police and Prosecutorial Misconduct."

home + eight things to know + closer look + smith's long hard life + ofra bikel
producer chat + introduction + discussion + video + links & readings
tapes & transcripts + press reaction + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation