Captain of Deceit | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Captain of Deceit

Richard Scheff has long been known in courthouse circles as an excellent trial witness -- smooth, confident, authoritative, and credible. As a result of his eloquence, a stack of laudatory letters from prosecutors in the Broward Sheriff's Office fills the captain's personnel file. Scheff, a homicide detective during the '80s and early '90s, was a master at both investigating murder suspects and helping to convict them.

This year, however, Scheff found himself on the wrong side of an accusation. Defense attorneys alleged he had lied in court to keep Frank Lee Smith, who was proven innocent by DNA tests last year, on death row. After the Smith case blew up in the media, Florida governor Jeb Bush ordered an investigation into Scheff's actions. And when it came time for the captain to defend himself during a deposition taken by special prosecutor Lawrence Mirman, his polished act disintegrated. Scheff, angry and stammering, seemed unsure of himself and complained that he felt as if he were being "crucified."

But the deputy really didn't have much to worry about. On July 3 Mirman determined there wasn't enough evidence to charge Scheff with perjury, and the case was closed. After the decision Scheff's boss, Broward County sheriff Ken Jenne, announced that his trusted deputy, who oversees BSO's countywide operations and makes $85,000 a year, had been exonerated. (Scheff didn't return phone calls from New Times seeking comment.)

Smith, who was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of eight-year-old Shandra Whitehead, never saw his own vindication. He died of cancer in prison in 1999, a year before DNA tests showed Shandra's real murderer was serial rapist and killer Eddie Lee Mosley, who is now confined to a state mental hospital.

During 14 years behind bars, whenever Smith looked for justice, he usually saw Scheff; the detective interrogated him, charged him, and testified against him prior to his conviction. Then he showed up at hearings during the appeals process to help seal Smith's fate. In so doing, court records show, Scheff lied in his testimony, contradicting himself numerous times. First he denied that Mosley was ever a suspect in the murder, then admitted the opposite. Scheff denied at trial that he'd shown any witness a photographic lineup that included Mosley; then, years later, twice testified that he had done so. And when Mirman deposed him on March 6, Scheff made a startling declaration: He admitted under oath that he really didn't remember whether or not he'd ever shown the Mosley photo lineup.

Mirman, who issued a 53-page report detailing his investigation, says he chose not to charge Scheff because he couldn't prove the former homicide detective had knowingly lied. This explanation provokes Smith's advocates, who call the probe a whitewash. "Mirman was only trying to exonerate the criminal-justice system," says Marty McClain, who served as one of Smith's postconviction lawyers. "He didn't want to see the truth, or he simply refused to see it."

One truth that emerges from court records is that each of Scheff's false statements and contradictions served the same purpose: to keep Smith behind bars. And Scheff had reason to protect his case; breaking the Whitehead murder had won him "Deputy of the Month" honors and initiated his climb up the BSO administrative ladder.

The tangled tale revolves around Mosley, who had been in and out of prison several times in the decade before he raped and killed Shandra Whitehead on April 14, 1985. Scheff was well aware of Mosley's crimes; the detective had investigated Mosley for two murders in 1984. Common sense dictates that Mosley would immediately have been considered a suspect in the little girl's murder: He not only lived in the same northwest Fort Lauderdale neighborhood as Shandra but was her mother's cousin. A case of mistaken identity four days after the murder by an eyewitness named Chiquita Lowe, however, led BSO to pursue Smith.

After Smith was charged with the murder, defense attorney Andrew Washor deposed Scheff and peppered him with questions about other suspects. Scheff never mentioned Mosley, even when asked specifically if any of Shandra's relatives had been considered as possible culprits. Scheff's failure to name Mosley, argues McClain, was the detective's first lie in the case.

During Smith's trial in 1986, Scheff admitted on the stand that Mosley had indeed been a suspect. But the damage to the defense had already been done; Scheff's failure to identify Mosley in the deposition prevented the defense from properly investigating the serial killer before the trial. And during his testimony Scheff downplayed Mosley's significance and swore he hadn't shown witnesses a photo lineup of the serial killer. "Scheff didn't want to help the defense in any way to shift blame to Mosley," McClain surmises.

After Smith was sentenced to death, his postconviction lawyers set out to prove their hunch that Mosley was the real killer. In 1989 private investigator Jeff Smith showed Lowe a photo of Mosley. The witness had an epiphany: "When I looked at the picture, everything came back to me," she wrote in an affidavit. "I swear on my mother's grave that the man in the photo is the man I saw on the street the night when the little girl was raped and killed. I identified the wrong man in the courtroom."