Convicted of rape, exonerated by DNA; family settles BSO lawsuit
Frank Lee Smith died of cancer on death row, just months before DNA exonerated him of raping and murdering an 8-year-old girl in Fort Lauderdale. Now, more than 13 years later, his family's civil lawsuit against the Broward Sheriff's Office and two detectives accused of framing him has finally been settled.
Smith's death made him a national symbol because it was the first case in the U.S. that scientifically proved an innocent man had died in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
But the financial settlement reached with the Sheriff's Office — on behalf of the agency and retired detectives Richard Scheff and Philip Amabile — is much less than the millions awarded in Broward's other notorious wrongful conviction cases.
The civil suit was recently settled for just $340,000 — including attorney fees and legal costs, lawyers Michael Wrubel and James Green told the Sun Sentinel. They filed the lawsuit on behalf of Smith's closest surviving relative, his half-sister Virginia Smith, of Sunrise.
Eight-year-old Shandra Whitehead was found unconscious in her Fort Lauderdale home in April 1985. The child was raped, beaten with a rock and left for dead, with her pajamas tied around her neck in an attempt to strangle her. She lingered for nine days without regaining consciousness before dying from the head injuries.
Smith vehemently denied he had anything to do with Shandra's horrific murder. His own mother was raped and murdered by an attacker who dumped her body in a Davie lake when Smith was in his teens.
Smith wept on the witness stand during the penalty phase of his trial, imploring jurors to believe he was innocent.
"For me to be turned around and be accused, the way I feel about a rape," he told them. "My mama was killed like this. ... How do you think I feel about a rapist, and beyond that a baby?"
Few people believed him, except the lawyers and their investigators who worked to save him in the 15 years he was locked up, and who continued to fight on his behalf after he died of pancreatic cancer in 2000, at the age of 52.
Scheff and Amabile considered and then ignored a more likely suspect: serial killer Eddie Lee Mosley, who was known in the northwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood as "the Rape Man" at the time. Mosley's sexual assaults were so widely known that parents warned their daughters to avoid the severely mentally challenged man if possible.
Mosley was related to Shandra — her mother was his cousin. And an artist's sketch of the murder suspect, based on witness accounts, bore a striking resemblance to Mosley, including his droopy eye.
In the civil lawsuit, now-retired detectives Scheff and Amabile were accused of framing Smith in 1985 and pressuring witnesses to shore up a very weak case.
Attorneys also accused Scheff of fabricating evidence — Mosley shown in a photo lineup that Scheff and Amabile said was shown to witnesses. The lineup was turned over to the defense only many years after Smith was convicted, and surfaced only when detectives were pushing to keep him in prison after some of the witnesses said they had been pressured to identify Smith as the culprit.
"This was a travesty of justice all around," Wrubel said of Smith's wrongful conviction and 15 years on Florida's death row. "Any time an innocent person is wrongly convicted and incarcerated, facing the ultimate punishment, it's a travesty of justice. The system failed."
Wrubel renewed calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Broward's "sorry history" of wrongful convictions from the 1970s and 1980s, and the DNA exonerations of Smith, who was sentenced to death, and Jerry Frank Townsend and Anthony Caravella, who were sentenced to life in prison. Smith was mentally ill, and Townsend and Caravella were both mentally challenged.
Not only were the wrong men locked up and robbed of many years of their lives, but more victims died because detectives allowed Mosley's serial-killing spree to continue, said Wrubel.
The settlement released "all parties involved without any admission of liability or wrongdoing on the part of BSO," Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Keyla Concepción wrote in an email Friday.
"The Smith case is perhaps an isolated, last remnant of a previous, less advanced era of criminal investigative science," she wrote.
Scheff and Amabile did not respond to requests for comment.
Carolyn McCann of the State Attorney's Office said her office sought a full investigation of Scheff and Amabile by an independent prosecutor. She also said the three DNA exonerations caused many changes in how prosecutors do their work — including requiring police to videotape all suspect statements.
The special prosecutor from St. Lucie County who investigated Scheff and Amabile decided in 2001 that there wasn't enough evidence to show they lied in Smith's criminal case and appeals. Scheff was the focus of that investigation, but Amabile's actions were also examined because he backed up Scheff in court.
The prosecution's report found the suspicions about Scheff's actions were "well-founded" but not sufficient to support criminal perjury charges against Scheff or Amabile — though the report also found both men may have given false testimony based on their negligence.
Townsend and Caravella spent more than 20 years in state prison before DNA testing cleared them.
Townsend, who was convicted of a string of rapes and murders in South Florida, received $2 million from the Broward Sheriff's Office and $2.2 million from the city of Miami to settle his civil lawsuits. ..Source.. by Paula McMahon, Sun Sentinel