Intellectually disabled with the mental capacity of an eight-year-old, Jerry Frank Townsend was convicted of six murders and one rape and sentenced to seven concurrent life sentences.
In 1979, Townsend was arrested for raping a pregnant woman in Miami, Florida. During the investigation, he confessed to committing murders. The confessions were largely the consequence of Townsend wanting to please authority figures, a common adaptive practice by someone with his mental capacities. Police took Townsend to murder scenes and recorded his confessions.
In 1980, Townsend was convicted at trial of first-degree murder for the 1973 killings of Naomi Gamble and Barbara Brown in Broward County. Not only did Townsend confess to these two murders, but he also confessed to the murder of 13-year-old Sonja Marion in 1979. In 1982, he pled guilty to two slayings in Miami in the late 1970's and no contest to two 1979 murders in Broward County.
Eventually, Townsend was cleared by DNA evidence following actions in 1998, when Sonja Marion's mother had a Fort Lauderdale police detective review the Townsend cases. In 2000, DNA testing of a semen sample on the child's shorts implicated another man. DNA evidence cleared Townsend for two of the six murders. The evidence pointed to Eddie Lee Mosley, and cast substantial doubt on the accuracy of all of Townsend's confessions. Without the confession evidence, the prosecutors asked that Townsend's convictions be thrown out, especially since DNA testing had actually located the perpetrator in some of the crimes.
In April 2001, Townsend was cleared of two Broward killings through further DNA testing, eliminating two of his seven life sentences. Ultimately, he was cleared of all the Broward charges and released on June 15, 2001, at the age of forty-nine. Townsend had remained in prison for nearly 22 years.
The testing in Townsend's case also affected the case of Frank Lee Smith
, who died while on Florida's death row before being exonerated by postconviction DNA testing. The testing in Smith's case also implicated Eddie Lee Mosley.
A civil rights lawsuit was filed on Townsend's behalf and the city of Miami and Broward County settled the case for $4.2 million.