"He believed in the system" -- The Story of Frank Lee Smith
By Dr. Christina J. Johns
Law, Power and Justice Syndicate
February 12, 2001
That's what Jeff Walsh, the lead investigator on the Frank Lee Smith
case said about Frank. "He believed in the system."
Frank Lee Smith was not what you would call a "model citizen." He had
committed a crime in the past, been convicted, and served his time. In
the mid-1980s he was out and ready to start a new life. But it wasn't to be.
The police came into his house, rounded up his entire family and
threatened to put them all in jail if Frank Lee didn't confess to the
brutal rape and murder of a local 8-year-old girl. One of the family members
argued Frank Lee's innocence. One of the police officers responded that
if Frank Lee hadn't committed this crime, he had committed others, and they
were arresting Frank Lee.
Frank Lee went along, thinking that everything would be sorted out.
It was just a mistake. 14 years later, Frank Lee Smith died of cancer on
Florida's death row before the state had the chance to execute him. A few
months later, DNA evidence was analyzed (over the protest of the state)
and the conviction of Frank Lee Smith was vacated. Frank Lee, it seemed,
was innocent. Little good it did him.
As Jeff Walsh pointed out in a recent interview, "What they did to Frank
Lee Smith was worse than executing him." Walsh says that Smith was
confined in a tiny cell, beaten, locked up naked in a holding cell from time
time, remained untreated for serious mental health problems and suffered other
indignities. For guilty man, this would be barely tolerable. For an
innocent one, it defies comprehension.
"Frank was the angriest man I've ever known." Jeff Walsh says.
couldn't comprehend what was happening to him." Frank Lee Smith wasn't,
Walsh says, violent. "It wasn't like you thought he was going to lunge
across a table and attack you." It was just that Frank Lee Smith was
eaten up with the injustice of what was happening to him, and with the waste
of what remained of his life.
This story is a tragic one, filled with details of prosecutorial misconduct
and judicial conduct which caused an entire hearing to be thrown out.
There is police intimidation of witnesses, police fabrication of
evidence, and a police officer who perjured himself on the stand. But
still, Frank Lee Smith spent 14 years on death row, died on death row,
and "believed in the system."
This morning on the news, I have just heard another story which is
very similar from another state. DNA technology is cutting the legs out from
under the death penalty, and is sparking a real confrontation between
defense attorneys who want the preservation and analysis of forensic
and state officials who just want to dispose of it, or refuse to analyze it.
Even those of us who support the death penalty, cannot support the
victimization of innocent people and DNA technology is increasingly giving
the lie to assertions that the trial and appeals process ensures that only
guilty people get put on death row.
When asked about the decision of the governor of Illinois to call a
moratorium on the death penalty, the governor of Florida remarked that
Florida didn't need one because Florida didn't make mistakes. Frank Lee
Smith proves him wrong.
Sent by Larry Helm Spalding
ACLU Legislative Staff Counsel