Forget too that before Smith was wrongfully sentenced to death in 1986, he wept, begging the judge and jury for mercy and swearing he would never, ever hurt a little girl. Ignore that he was still sent to death row for a crime he didn't commit and went completely insane in prison. And forget that he received scant medical attention during his bout with cancer and died in an isolation chamber, strapped to a prison gurney, dehydrated, far from those who loved him.
What really matters is that Smith had a bad past that included two homicides while he was a teenager. He belonged in prison.
Richard Scheff, now a Broward Sheriff's Office captain, says so.
"Regardless of whether [Frank Lee Smith] was responsible for the murder of Shandra Whitehead or not, he was really a dangerous guy," Scheff told me. "I think he was a dangerous guy. He had certainly killed two other people."
Then he laughed and added, "I mean, how many people do you have to kill before you forfeit your freedom?"
And there it was. Many people had suspected it, but he said it. Smith, before he was sentenced to death in 1986, already knew Scheff saw him as a throwaway defendant. "My past seems to follow me wherever I go," Smith said in court, "and now it has got me sitting here for something I haven't done."
Jeff Walsh, a defense investigator who worked years to exonerate Smith, has long said that Scheff targeted Smith because his criminal past made him an easy sell to a jury. "That is the truest thing he's ever said in his life," Walsh says of Scheff's remarks. "That is the Frank Lee Smith case in a nutshell. BSO was the judge, jury, and executioner in that case. He was convicted on his past, and that is how Scheff operates. He's a rogue cop."
It's the first time Scheff has ever said anything publicly about Smith since DNA tests exonerated him of Whitehead's murder in December 2000, 11 months after he died in prison at age 52. Scheff remained silent until last Tuesday, when he was compelled to testify about the case during the high-profile murder trial of Michael Scott Keen, whom Scheff also helped send to death row. Afterward, I questioned the captain outside the courtroom.
"The man was strange," Scheff said of Smith. "I mean, I could never figure him out. I couldn't tell if he was stupid and trying to pretend like he was smart or smart and trying to pretend like" -- he pauses here before continuing -- "to tell you the truth, I always thought he was trying to manipulate me. I had this feeling like he was trying to handle me.... He should have been honest with me -- or kept his mouth shut."
I had to excuse myself at this point to reach down and pick my lower jaw up off the floor. Talk about strange. As I described in a news story more than a year ago ("Captain of Deceit," July 26, 2001), it was Scheff who manipulated the murder case to fit Smith and who apparently lied in court to keep Smith behind bars. According to Smith's testimony, it was Scheff who badgered Smith into talking to him and refused to let him get a lawyer.
It is true, however, that Smith wasn't normal. Small wonder. His parents were murdered in separate incidents, and his early childhood was spent in and out of foster care and abusive family situations. When he was a little boy, a bottle was broken on his head during a street riot, damaging his brain and permanently distorting his vision. He suffered from schizophrenia and paranoid delusions. Throw in his violent youth, the two homicides, and 15 years in prison and you have the perfect fall guy for a murder.
Scheff orchestrated the case against Smith with the skill of a Tchaikovsky. The key controversies surrounding Scheff's actions involve an alleged confession by Smith and contradictory testimony the captain has given about whether he showed a photo lineup that included the actual killer, Mosley, to the key witness.
Scheff got witness Chiquita Lowe to identify Smith at the 1986 trial as the man she'd seen on the street near Whitehead's house the night of the murder. Scheff testified at the trial that he never showed her a picture of Mosley, whom he had ruled out as a suspect because Whitehead's mother was his cousin and insisted he wouldn't have hurt her daughter.