A Plea from the Past
Frank Lee Smith died in prison two and a half years ago, wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl. He never found justice in courtrooms. But now, in the name of justice, Smith lives on in them.
During just the past two weeks, Smith's name has been invoked by the defense in two controversial Broward Sheriff's Office homicide cases. First, murder defendant Michael Scott Keen grilled BSO Capt. Richard Scheff in court about the captain's faulty investigation of Smith. A jury convicted Keen of drowning his wife anyway.
Then, during federal hearings in Miami, a public defender tried to use the Smith case to cast doubt on BSO detectives' credibility in the Scheff-supervised investigation of the 1990 murder of Deputy Patrick Behan. Although Tim Brown is serving a life sentence for that crime, another man boasted of the murder to undercover officers. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Graham, however, didn't allow questioning about Smith.
The irony in all this posthumous attention is that nobody but a few relatives and lawyers ever really listened to Smith when he was in court. There was little sympathy for Smith when he sat shackled to the witness stand and pleaded for his life in front of a jury that had just convicted him of murdering Shandra Whitehead in 1985. The court transcript reveals an inarticulate and forgiving man who can't find the right words as he struggles with the question: How can you ask for mercy when you haven't done anything wrong?
Smith ultimately blamed a past he never could escape. When he was young, his father was shot dead by a policeman, and his mother was later raped and murdered. Growing up, he suffered brain damage from a head injury, was mistreated in dilapidated foster homes, and was physically abused by a grandparent. Then came his own violence: Smith stabbed an older boy during a fight at the age of 13 and was involved in a robbery-murder at 17. Released from prison in his mid-30s, he was trying to clean up his life when he was caught in the BSO dragnet after Shandra's murder.
What follows are Smith's own words on January 31, 1986, beginning with questions from his defense attorney, Andrew Washor.
Perhaps now we'll listen.
Washor: On April 14, 1985, were you ever at Shandra Whitehead's house, and did you ever commit any kind of crime?
Smith: No I wasn't, sir. I don't even know the kid. I don't know the child. You know, I don't even know what he talking about.
Washor: Did you murder that girl?
Smith: No sir, I didn't.
Washor: Did you rape her?
Smith: No sir.
Washor: Did you burglarize the house?
Smith: No sir, I weren't nowhere in that vicinity.
Washor: What were you doing?
Smith: Just sitting around, sir. Basically, you know, having talk with the family. When a friend of my cousin sit down in the car, and we did some talking and what not, just from there up until the time we came in.
Washor: Is there anything else you would like to tell this jury?
Smith: The only thing I can say is that I am not the man of this crime. I am a -- a -- you know how things go -- I haven't done it, and that is the God's honest truth. There have been things in my past that have happened to me. I know that I have maybe gotten involved -- but that was at a younger stage of life -- involved with no right kind of, you know.
Since I growed up and become a man I have accepted the responsibility of a man. I have educated myself. I have fought very hard to get to the position of where I would be able to obtain a goal that I would like to earn, and that is to be successful in life. I haven't had the time to express any of it. You know, I tried to follow the job of medicine, but I was denied because I was blackballed because of my record. I went into many other fields, such as engineer by trade, but I was still denied because of this.
But I didn't let that fall me off. I went over to the spheres of hard labor, which there are very few things I cannot do on the level of working because I have been exposed to a great deal of work in my life.... My family is very hard-working, and I have been knowing that basically all life.
I haven't had a chance to get myself educated as far as getting a diploma and whatnot. I went a year and a half at state junior college, and one of my trades is precision sheet metal, and I guess [I] have been turned down because of certain things that have happened in the past, which seems to follow me everywhere I go and, in fact, now it has me sitting here for something I haven't done.
But I can truthfully say, as a man, I feel justified in my heart. I have nothing against any of you.... Like I say, this past year that I have been going through is a lot of suffering. Like I say, my past record, and I don't basically know how to put it or what to say concerning it, you know, just -- well, maybe this is what God wanted. I don't know. I just leave it like that. I had determined to consider talking about God a little bit, but I put that aside and leave it as it is.
I am innocent. I didn't do it. I cannot help you, actually, within your power, to know that. See things and respect the word. Have mercy on me, I guess is the proper way to ask. I don't know, because I haven't done anything. So what can a man ask, when he haven't done [it]? You know? How can he ask somebody? I don't basically know how to put this.
(At about this point, Smith begins to cry.)
I want things... that really hurt me too bad, that I be accused for something like this, when my mama was raped, brutally raped, and in fact, they took a knife and cut her mouth off where she could not... for me to be turned around and be accused. The way I feel about a rape -- my mama was taken, but I have to be accused of something? It is not like this.
Washor: Are you all right, Frank?
Washor: I have no further questions, Frank.
Smith: ... my mama was killed like this. You think you -- how do you think I feel about a rapist, and beyond that a baby? How do you think I feel about a baby like that.
With that cry out to his dead mother, Smith's direct testimony ended. Shortly thereafter, the jury recommended that Smith be electrocuted. On January 30, 2000, after nearly 15 years behind bars, he died of cancer on Death Row. He was 52. Eleven months after his death, DNA tests proved him innocent of Shandra's murder.
RIP, Frank Lee Smith.
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