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Frank Lee Smith

Other Posthumous Exonerations
Just before midnight on Sunday April 14, 1985, Dorothy McGriff pulled into the driveway of her home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. From her car, she saw a man coming out of a broken window.

Inside, McGriff found her 8-year-old daughter, Shandra Whitehead, unconscious and covered in blood. The girl had been raped, sodomized, strangled, and beaten. She died from her injuries a week later. An autopsy said the cause of death was strangulation and repeated blows from a rock.

Detectives Richard Scheff and Phillip Amabile of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office led the investigation and began questioning the girl’s family members and potential witnesses. They initially suspected that the victim knew the assailant because there were no signs of forced entry. Scheff asked McGriff about two of her cousins, Edwin McGriff and Eddie Lee Mosley. He would later testify that McGriff said that no one in her family could have done such a crime.

McGriff said she did not get a good look at the man’s face but described him as a muscular Black man with a short afro who was wearing an orange shirt. Gerald Davis told deputies that he saw a Black man with a beard and plaid shirt in the area about an hour before the crime. The third witness was Chiquita Lowe, a family friend of McGriff’s who said a man approached her asking for money as she drove past the house around the time of the crime. She described the man as six feet tall, muscular, with a droopy eye, and wearing a sterling ring and white shirt. From those descriptions, the sheriff’s office assembled a composite sketch.

Four days after her initial interview, Lowe called the police and said she believed the man she saw was back in the neighborhood and had just tried to sell her grandmother a television. The detectives returned and another person, not Lowe, gave the name of Frank Lee Smith as a potential match for the composite sketch.

Smith, who was then 37 years old, had a traumatic life and an extensive criminal record. Smith’s father had been killed by the police when he was a young child, and his mother had been raped and murdered. Smith suffered from two head injuries in his childhood and one as an adolescent. When he was 13 years old, he killed a boy during a fight. Five years later, he was convicted of murder in a robbery that went wrong. He was released from prison in 1981 and began living with his aunt in Broward County.

On April 29, 1985, Smith was arrested for Shandra’s murder and interrogated by Scheff and Amabile. Their interrogation was not videotaped or recorded and they took no notes. During the interrogation, according to Scheff’s testimony at Smith’s trial, Scheff lied to Smith and claimed that the victim’s brother had seen his sister’s attacker in the house. In response, according to Scheff, Smith said, “No way that kid could have seen me, it was too dark … The lights were out.” Scheff would later testify that this amounted to a confession.

Davis was shown a picture of Smith and then identified Smith from a live lineup. McGriff and Lowe each selected Smith from a photo array.

Smith’s jury trial was held in Broward County Circuit Court. He was represented by Andrew Washor. Assistant State Attorney William Dimitrouleas was the lead prosecutor. There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting Smith to the crime, and he didn’t provide an alibi.

The state’s case relied on Smith’s purported confession and the identifications by McGriff, Davis, and Lowe.

McGriff testified that as she drove up to her home at 11:30 p.m., she saw a man standing outside one of the windows. She later identified Smith based on his shoulders. At trial, McGriff identified Smith as the man she had seen outside her house.

Davis testified that as he walked past the victim’s house, a man engaged him in a conversation for several minutes, asking Davis if he had any drugs or wanted to have sex. He described the man as disheveled, with kinky, knotted hair and a sleepy eye. He also said he ran as if he was “knock-kneed.”

Davis said the police showed him two photo arrays and he picked out a photo from the second array that “looked like” the man he saw. He then viewed a live line-up that included Smith. He testified that he was “bothered” because Smith didn’t seem as tall as the man Davis saw. Davis testified that the police assured him that everyone in the line-up was at least 6’ tall. That was incorrect. Smith was 5’ 9” tall. In court, Davis identified Smith as the man who approached him on the night of the murder.

Lowe testified that as she drove past Shandra’s house, a man flagged her down and asked her for 50 cents. She gave a description similar to Davis’s: about 6’ tall, 190 pounds, straggly hair, with a sleepy eye.

Lowe testified that she “looked dead at him” from a distance of 18 inches and later identified Smith in court as that man. She said that she was certain about the droopy eye but was not sure if it was the right or left eye.

Both Lowe and Davis testified that the man they saw was not wearing glasses. Smith, who was legally blind and wore thick glasses, did not testify because taking the witness stand would have allowed the prosecution to question him about his previous convictions.

Scheff testified about the investigation and said that he and the other detectives had eliminated other suspects.

On January 31, 1986, the jury convicted Smith of first-degree murder and sexual assault. During the sentencing phase, Smith said he was innocent. “I didn’t do it,” he said. “It really hurt me to be accused of something like this, when my mama was raped … and my mama was killed like that … How do you think I feel about a baby like that?”

The jury voted unanimously in favor of the death penalty, and on May 6, 1986, Judge Robert Tyson imposed the sentence, calling the crime “outrageously wicked, brutal and pitiless.”

On November 17, 1989, Smith’s defense team filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, asserting substantial errors in the guilt and sentencing phases of Smith’s trial. Separately, on January 8, 1990, Smith moved for a stay of execution based on new evidence of innocence.

A month earlier, Lowe had recanted her testimony and identification of Smith. In an affidavit, Lowe said, “While I was in the courtroom telling about what I saw, I knew that the man on trial was too thin to be the same man I saw on the street.”

In the affidavit, Lowe said that on December 10, 1989, an investigator with Smith’s defense team showed her a picture of Mosley and asked Lowe whether he was the man she saw the night of Shandra’s murder. “When I looked at the picture everything came back to me,” she said. “The man in the photo is without a doubt the man I saw. I know that he is not the same man who was on trial for the little girl’s murder. I am so sorry that the wrong man is in prison and sentenced to death. I had doubts in the courtroom but I was under so much pressure. Also, the state attorney told me about how dangerous the man was and how he needed to be locked up forever.”

Mosley bore a strong resemblance to the man in the composite sketch. More importantly, since Smith’s conviction, he had been arrested on two cases involving rape and murder and was tied to nearly a dozen other violent sexual crimes between 1973 and 1987, the motion said. Mosley would also play a pivotal role in the exonerations of Jerry Townsend.

The motion for a stay also said that Smith’s attorney had been ineffective by failing to use the police records to challenge witnesses on their testimony. The police had said they had eliminated other suspects, but nothing in the records documented this process, the motion said. Separately, Scheff’s testimony about Smith’s purported confessional statement didn’t square with other reports, which suggested that any statement Smith made took place when Scheff was not in the interrogation room.

The state supreme court denied the habeas petition but granted a stay of execution and ordered an evidentiary hearing on Lowe’s affidavit.

The evidentiary hearing was held in March of 1990. Smith’s team argued that Mosley, with an extensive criminal record involving sexual assaults, was the real assailant. The state argued that Mosley’s modus operandi did not match the crime because none of Mosley’s known victims were children.

Scheff testified at the hearing and said that Mosley had been in a photo array that Lowe viewed, and she had not identified him. He had testified to the contrary at Smith’s trial. (Years later, he would say he answered incorrectly at trial because he became confused by the wording of the question.)

Lowe testified at the hearing that Mosley wasn’t in the array. She testified about her recantation and that she was being truthful.

After the hearing, Judge Tyson affirmed Smith’s conviction.

In January of 1998, a new appeal reached the Florida Supreme Court, alleging improprieties during the evidentiary hearing. The court found that Judge Tyson had been involved in three improper conversations with Assistant State Attorney Paul Zacks, one of which led to the rewording of an order. Smith’s case was then sent to the Broward Circuit Court for a new hearing.

Separately, Smith’s defense team was also pursuing a new avenue to prove his innocence, seeking a judicial order to allow DNA testing on a small amount of evidence recovered from the crime scene.

The circuit court hearing was held in October of 1998. After the hearing, Judge Mark Speiser denied the motion for DNA testing and denied the motion for a new hearing. He said that Lowe’s recantation and identification of Mosley lacked credibility.

On January 1, 2000, Smith went to the hospital, complaining of stomach pains. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died on January 30, 2000. He was 52 years old.

In July of 2000, Smith’s attorneys and the state reached an agreement on DNA testing. In November, DNA samples were sent from Broward County to the FBI lab in Washington D.C. On December 11, 2000, the lab reported that Smith’s DNA did not match the DNA evidence found at the crime scene. Four days later, the lab reported that the genetic material was consistent with Eddie Mosley’s DNA. Smith was posthumously exonerated on December 15, 2000.

In 2013, Smith’s family reached a settlement of $340,000 with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

– Alexandra Wallace

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 7/31/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1985
Age at the date of reported crime:37
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes