CRIME

Frank Lee Smith's Family Settles Lawsuit With Broward Sheriff's Office Over DNA Exoneration

07/21/2013 08:00 am ET | Updated Sep 21, 2013
State Of Florida

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 Concepcion 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.

A federal jury earlier this year decided two Miramar detectives involved in the Caravella case should pay him $7 million, although the case is still being litigated and he has not yet received any money. The same jury found a former Broward Sheriff's detective not liable for Caravella's wrongful conviction.

The DNA tests that exonerated Smith and Townsend in 2000 and 2001 implicated Mosley as the real rapist and killer in at least eight slayings from the 1970s and 1980s. Mosley remains a suspect in at least 40 rapes and more than a dozen murders in the northwest Fort Lauderale area, as well as the murders of two women in Lakeland during a period when his family sent him to live with relatives there.

Mosley has not been tried for any of the murders. He was committed to a state psychiatric hospital in 1988 after being found mentally incompetent to stand trial. He remains involuntarily committed to the secure hospital in Chattahoochee in northern Florida.

Though Smith's attorneys felt the alleged misconduct by the Sheriff's Office and the intense suffering Smith endured were worth more, Wrubel said there were practical reasons for settling the 2002 civil lawsuit shortly before it was finally scheduled to go to trial this summer.

For example, although Smith was posthumously exonerated in Shandra's death, he had a violent criminal record that included convictions for two slayings -- an uncomfortable issue that was certainly going to be raised in the civil trial. He had admitted his role in both crimes.

Smith served time as a juvenile for manslaughter when he was 13 after fatally stabbing a teen in what he claimed was self-defense at a Dillard High School football game in 1960.

Five years later he was convicted, along with two co-defendants, of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of a male robbery victim. He was freed in 1981 after serving 15 years in prison.

There were other concerns that would have made trying the civil case before a jury risky -- including that Smith was mentally ill, had joined a cult and was sometimes homeless and not working before he went to prison. All those elements would have made it more difficult to calculate the damages due to him.

Perhaps the greatest challenge: Smith was dead -- making it difficult to personalize him to a jury. Though such money judgements are intended to compensate the person who suffered, as well as punish and deter the people responsible, Smith's death meant any money would go to his half-sister, his closest legal relative by blood, and Richard Beauchamp, the attorney for the Sheriff's Office, made it clear in court records that he was going to raise questions about how emotionally close that relationship had really been.

"I think if we'd had 10 juries, two of them would be totally outraged [and] another two would probably not really have cared what happened [to him] because of Frank's criminal history -- the very criminal history that made Frank an easy target for the Broward Sheriff's Office," Wrubel said.

Virginia Smith did not respond to requests for comment. In a 2011 interview with the Sun Sentinel, she said she hoped to pay off the balance on her brother's funeral bill, erect a headstone at his grave and set up a foundation to help other wrongfully imprisoned people.

pmcmahon@tribune.com, 954-356-4533 or Twitter @SentinelPaula ___

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