You know what my biggest problem is? It’s that everyone is innocent. There are no guilty men or women on death row. We are all innocent. So what if in most cases there was physical or forensic evidence, even eyewitnesses or a co-defendant who testified that they committed the crime together, and just as often the condemned man now claiming innocence actually confessed to the crime – we are all still innocent.
See, that’s just how most people see it – there are so many men and women on death rows across the county claiming that they are innocent that they dismiss all claims of innocence with a sarcastic “oh yeah – they are all innocent” Even the courts and media often respond to a claim of innocence with a yawn, followed by “here we go again”
The truth is that many who might claim innocence are not innocent. As case after case is picked apart and claims of innocence are discredited by the courted, the credibility of all claims of innocence is undermined. As we see case after case in which a condemned man or woman claims to be innocent in spite of overwhelming evidence the very concept of innocence itself is discredited and not surprisingly most of the public, the courts, and even the media become skeptical of all claims of innocence.
But I’m not throwing stones at those who claim innocence in spite of overwhelming evidence of their guilt. The fact is that in the 26 years that I have been on death row I have seen too many cases where men were convicted and condemned to death on what appeared to be solid evidence, only to later learn that the prosecutor deliberately fabricated evidence, of key witnesses had reason to lie, or alleged “confessions” wee not what they seemed to be.
In these many years I also have seen one thing above all else that convinces me that the state will knowingly and intentionally convict, condemn, and execute innocent people. That is that in almost 150 cases in which a condemned man or woman has been exonerated and released from death row, even when DNA evidence conclusively clears the wrongfully convicted of the crime, not even once has a state attorney admitted they made a mistake.
Maybe claims of innocence are being abused – but when our judicial system has such a well documented history of wrongfully convicting and condemning innocent people and those representing the state categorically refuse to acknowledge that they might have made a mistake, then how can any of us actually know with any measure of moral certainty who is innocent and who is not?
Many years ago a man named Frank Lee Smith came to Florida’s death row. He was convicted and condemned to death for the brutal rape and murder of an 8 year old girl in Broward County, Florida. The evidence seemed to be convincing despite the fact that Frank insisted he was innocent.
It didn’t help that Frank wasn’t exactly wrapped too tight to begin with, or that only a few weeks prior to this horrific crime he was released from prison. Those factors almost seemed to create a presumption of guilt. Since he was a bit nuts and an ex-con to boot, surely he had to be guilty? Besides, with his past criminal record who could believe his claim of innocence?
Frank spent about 16 years on Florida’s death row and that was not easy times as if being on death row itself wasn’t bad enough, Frank also caught pure hell from both other prisoners and guards because he was convicted of raping and killing a young child. In prison, baby killers are not very popular.
I am ashamed to admit that I was one of the many who deliberately shut Frank out. On death row most of the guys generally look out for each other. If you have coffee and your neighbor doesn’t, you give him a cup or two until he gets up on his own feet or if chow that night isn’t too good (and it never is!) maybe you split a pack of cookies with him
But Frank didn’t have much of nothing – and nobody wanted to look out for him. Like Dante’s “Inferno”, there are many levels of this hell we call “death row”. I was only one of too many who made Frank’s “hell” that much more unbearable by deliberately refusing to reach out to him as like so many others I judged him based upon what he was convicted of, and no matter how much frank protested his innocence, I completely dismissed it, refusing to give him the benefit of the doubt – the same benefit of doubt that I ask others to give to me.
How could I have been so wrong? As the many years passed, I knew only too well just how completely corrupt our judicial process is. I knew without any doubt what so ever that it is all too common for innocent men and women to be wrongfully convicted and condemned to death and yet in my admittedly small mind I made the decision that he had to be guilty because he was convicted.
About ten years ago I was transferred from the regular Florida death row at Union Correctional Institution to the maximum-security “x-wing” at Florida State Prison, where “high risk” death row inmates were kept. On the bottom floor of the “x-wing” (now renamed “Q-wing”) was Florida’s electric chair (“Ole Sparky”) and the “death watch” cells. On the two floors above the death chamber were a total of 24 cells for maximum security confinement.
As coincidence would have it, Frank was in a cell two cells away from me. There’s not a lot to do when you’re “locked down” on X-wing as you’re not allowed to have any TV, radio, magazines, books, or anything. So breaking many years of silence, I started talking to Frank, or at least I did when he could stay in touch with reality long enough to carry on a conversation as through the years Frank had “bugged out” as we call it.
I’ve long had a reputation as a “jailhouse lawyer” and guys regularly ask me for my help on legal matters. Most of the time I do what I can to help, even if its really nothing more than build their faith up and keep the hope alive.
Frank told me how many years his lawyers have been trying to compel the court in Broward county to do DNA tests and how his lawyers found out that the prosecutor had arrested another man for similar type of sex crimes in the same area where he allegedly raped and killed that little girl, and people who knew that other man were saying that he committed the crime Frank was convicted of, so he needed that evidence to finally prove his innocence. But the problem was that both the Broward County State attorney (prosecutor) and the Florida Attorney General office were refusing to allow his lawyers to do DNA tests on that evidence. Even though they knew this other man may have committed the crime Frank was convicted of, and the DNA evidence could conclusively prove who actually committed that crime, the state refused to even allow the evidence to be tested, and they did all they could to prohibit Frank’s lawyers from being able to test that DNA evidence.
To further compound this injustice, Frank was dying of cancer. Although I couldn’t see him through the concrete wall that separated us, Frank was crying as he told me he just wanted to prove his innocence and let everyone know he was not a baby-killer before he died. For many hours after he told me that, I could still hear him crying late into the night. For the first time in the many years that I had known Frank, I really felt for him. That next morning I gave him my breakfast tray.
A few months later I was transferred back to the main death row at union Correctional institution and I never say Frank again. Not long after that I heard that he had died of cancer, just as so many others do here in “the row”
Less than a year later I received a letter from a friend. She sent me an article from the Ft Lauderdale “Sun Sentinel” newspaper that told how almost a year after Frank Lee Smith died of cancer the DNA evidence his lawyers had fought to have tested for almost a full decade was finally tested – and not only did the result conclusively slow
That Frank was innocent all along, but the evidence also showed that the other man who was already in custody for similar crimes in the area actually committed the rape and murder of that young girl they convicted and condemned Frank for.
Subsequently the POS program “Frontline” did a special about the Frank Lee Smith case, and the tragedy of him spending 16 year on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit – and how the state had deliberately obstructed his lawyers for almost a full decade, refusing to allow the DNA evidence that ultimately exonerated him to be tested.
You see, I do understand the skepticism that is all too common when we hear yet another death row prisoner protest his innocence. As a condemned prisoner protesting my own innocence even I fell into that trap of doubting Frank’s claims. But I was wrong. And I can’t help but wonder now if maybe I had given him the benefit of doubt, maybe – just maybe – it would have made a difference. I probably couldn’t have done much to help him in his legal fight and I couldn’t have cured his cancer. But I could have been a friend and by just doing that I could have made his days in this man-made hell just a little easier.
Looking back at how I treated Frank Lee Smith – how almost everyone on the row treated him – because I choose to dismiss his claims of innocence and did not give him the same benefit of doubt that I ask others to give me, I am ashamed. I could have been – and should have been – a better man than that as the truth is that I did not know whether he was innocent or not. Rather, I simply assumed that he had to be guilty. I was wrong.
To this day, now almost ten years later, this bothers me. But this experience also made me realize just how easy it is to become complacent, and even indifferent, to the claims of innocence we so often hear. Maybe everybody who claims to be innocent is not innocent - but how do we know who is and isn’t? What we do know without any doubt is that there are far too many men and women being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death - and we know that no matter how conclusive the evidence is that exonerates the wrongfully convicted, those working for the state will never admit they are wrong.
I ask that you check out a website featuring my case. Rather then ask you to believe me, I ask only that you examine the evidence for yourself and then decide. The entire trial transcripts and appeal briefs are all now posted on that website so you can fully review the entire case as if you are the jury. Then you decide - am I guilty or innocent? Please check it out at: www.southerninjustice.net