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On the advice of their court-appointed lawyer, Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts, both black men, pleaded guilty on August 17, 1963 to a double murder that had taken place less than a month earlier. The victims were 47-year-old Jesse L. Burkett and 28-year-old Grover Floyd, Jr., two white filling station attendants on the Florida Panhandle.
Burkett and Floyd had been abducted before dawn on August 1, 1963, from Skipper’s Mo-Jo filling station in the town of Highland View, in Gulf County, Florida. Their bodies were found two days later in a secluded area near a canal, some thirteen miles from the station.
On August 2, the day before the bodies were found, Lee and Pitts were taken into custody for questioning. They were suspects because they had been at the filling station shortly before the attendants disappeared. Pitts, in fact, had been there three times in the preceding hours. He was a 19-year-old Army private on summer maneuvers and had bivouacked just west of Highland View. On the afternoon of July 31, he and a fellow soldier, Lambson Smith, Jr., had driven a 1948 Ford borrowed from another soldier into Highland View. The car had overheated and they pulled into Skipper’s Mo-Jo in need of a radiator hose, but without funds to pay for it.
The station operator, Richard Skipper, agreed to replace the hose based on the soldiers’ promise to come back with money. It was Army payday. Pitts and Smith left a jack and spare tire as collateral and, a few hours later, returned as agreed with the payment. Skipper had gone for the day, but one of the attendants called him at home. Skipper returned to the station, cashed Pitts’ check — $74.94, a month’s pay — and returned the jack and spare tire to the men.
Pitts and Smith went from the station to a party at a shanty in the black section of nearby Port St. Joe to join several other soldiers from the bivouac camp in celebration of payday. The host of the party was Wilbert Lee, a 28-year-old functionally illiterate laborer whom Pitts knew by the nickname “Slingshot.”
After a couple of hours of partying, Lee told Pitts that he wanted to make a telephone call. There was no phone at the shanty, so Pitts offered to drive Lee to the nearest pay phone — at Skipper’s Mo-Jo. Two women, a man, and a little boy piled into the old Ford with them. While Lee used the phone, which was in a booth outside the station, the women got into an argument with the white attendants, Burkett and Floyd, because the women were denied use of a “White Ladies Only” washroom — an incident that, the next day, would heighten the Gulf County sheriff’s suspicion of Lee and Pitts.
There were several witnesses to the washroom incident, including two white youths, an elderly black man, and a young black woman. The black woman was a 19-year-old unwed mother named Willie Mae Lee. She was not related to Wilbert Lee, although they were acquainted. She had come to the station with the older black man, but left with the Lee-Pitts group to join the payday party at the shanty.
When Burkett and Floyd disappeared, Willie Mae was among the first persons questioned by authorities. Her principal interrogator was Joe R. Townsend, a polygraph operator who had recently joined the Florida State Crime Laboratory in Tallahassee. Weeks earlier, Townsend had abruptly ended an Air Force career under inauspicious circumstances. He had extracted a false confession from an airman to a double murder in Idaho. The airman, Joseph Shea, had steadfastly professed his innocence during two all-night interrogation sessions, but finally broke when falsely told that he had failed a polygraph test and that his wife had incriminated him.
Under similar grilling by Townsend and others over four days, Willie Mae Lee denied knowledge of the Mo-Jo attendants’ fate. Then on August 5, two days after the men’s bodies were found, she told Townsend that she had been with the men who committed the crime, portraying herself as an unwitting accomplice. A major problem soon became apparent in Willie Mae’s story, however, in that she identified the killers not as Lee and Pitts but instead as Lambson Smith and Pitts.
On August 6, the authorities discovered that Smith had an unshakable alibi. Thereafter, Willie Mae changed her account of the crime, then claiming that the second man had been Wilbert Lee after all. The shift called Willie Mae’s veracity into question, but that was a problem with which the authorities could and would deal — simply by not disclosing that she had ever mentioned Lambson Smith.
Ostensibly to avoid the danger of lynching, Lee and Pitts were taken to adjacent Bay County, where they were grilled by Townsend and the politically influential sheriff M.J. “Doc” Daffin. The interrogators told the suspects there was no doubt about their guilt because shoeprints linked them to the crime. In fact, there were no shoeprints, and Lee and Pitts did not fall for the ploy, but they did eventually break — Pitts on August 8 and Lee the next day.
Both Pitts and Lee gave detailed statements, which they would promptly recant, claiming that they had been tortured, threatened, and otherwise emotionally abused by Townsend and Daffin. Two hours after Pitts confessed, he was interviewed by two Army investigators to whom he professed his innocence and who noted that he indeed appeared to have been physically abused. Their observations, however, would remain secret until they were tracked down by reporter Gene Miller years later.
On August 12, Judge Warren L. Fitzpatrick appointed W. Fred Turner, a renowned Panhandle defense lawyer, to represent Lee and Pitts. Turner had served federal prison time for tax evasion, but he was riding high at the moment of his appointment in the Lee-Pitts case. Seven days earlier, he had won the acquittal of Clarence Earl Gideon on charges of breaking and entering into a Bay Harbor poolroom. Although the charge against Gideon paled beside those against Lee and Pitts, the Gideon case was highly celebrated because, after he was convicted without a lawyer at his first trial, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction in the celebrated case of Gideon v. Wainright. In the process, the Supreme Court established the right to counsel for indigent defendants facing serious criminal charges. Having a lawyer made all the difference for Gideon, but having the same lawyer was of little benefit to Lee and Pitts. Three days after Turner’s appointment in their case, an all-white Gulf County grand jury indicted them for murder based solely on Willie Mae Lee’s second account of the crime — the only account, of course, that the grand jury heard. The Army investigators who were concerned that Pitts was being railroaded asked to appear before the grand jury but were rebuffed.
Turner told Lee and Pitts that their only chance of avoiding the death penalty was to plead guilty, which they did on the spot, even though no agreement had been made with the prosecution to waive the death penalty in exchange for the guilty pleas. Fitzpatrick accepted the pleas and announced that he would empanel a jury nine days later to decide the punishment.
Although there was neither precedent nor statutory authority for such a proceeding, on August 28 Fitzpatrick swore in an all-white jury to decide on sentences. The star witness was Willie Mae Lee. Daffin, the Bay County sheriff, testified that both defendants’ confessions had been voluntary. Turner conducted no cross-examinations and called no defense witnesses. After deliberating twenty minutes, the jury voted to sentence both men to death.
Turner saw no reason to appeal, but Judge Fitzpatrick directed him to file an appeal and he complied. The appeal focused solely on the unorthodox sentencing procedure, which the Florida Supreme Court found acceptable on July 2, 1964, when it unanimously affirmed the convictions and death sentences. Despite the ruling, however, executions were delayed because, in a collateral proceeding, Phillip A. Hubbart, an assistant public defender from Miami now representing Lee, had challenged Gulf County’s long-standing practice of excluding black people from grand juries; never had a black person sat on a grand jury there, even though one-seventh of the registered voters were black. Hubbart’s challenge was destined to fail, but it did buy enough time to keep Lee and Pitts out of the electric chair.
In October 1966, a Florida prisoner named Jesse Coolidge Pait contacted the Broward County Sheriff's Department claiming that a fellow prisoner had confessed to an unsolved murder in Fort Lauderdale. A reward had been offered in the Fort Lauderdale case and Pait hoped to collect it by identifying the killer as Curtis Adams, Jr., a thirty-five-year-old Port St. Joe man serving twenty years for a 1964 armed robbery in Key West. When asked if Adams had admitted any other crimes, Pait said he had — the one for which Lee and Pins were on death row.
Pait’s information proved accurate regarding the Fort Lauderdale crime, to which Curtis Adams pleaded guilty in December 1966, pursuant to a plea agreement that allowed him to avoid a death sentence. Nonetheless, Gulf County refused to reopen the investigation of the Mo-Jo killings, although Broward County authorities questioned Adams about them. On December 21, in a ninety-six minute taped interview, Adams made a detailed confession, saying he had gone to the station with the specific intention of killing Burkett and Floyd after robbing them.
“The fact that you killed three human beings, did that ever bother you?” Adams was asked. “Yes, sir,” he answered. “It bothered me a lot for the first month on Grover Floyd and Jesse Burkett. One reason, Grover Floyd was a friend of mine, went out drinking with him and all, liked him and everything. And Jesse Burkett, he was a close friend of my father’s.” Adams was then asked, “How were you able to get yourself mentally prepared to do this?" He answered, “I don't know how to explain that. All I know, me or anyone else that does that there, there's something wrong with them somewhere. There has to be something haywire somewhere.”
Based on the confession, which soon was corroborated by Adams’ common-law wife, Mary Jean Atkins, Hubbart and Irwin J. Block, a Miami defense lawyer working pro bono on the case, filed a petition for state habeas corpus, arguing that Turner’s representation of Pitts and Lee had been incompetent and that their confessions had been coerced. Such petitions normally go before the trial judge, but when the prosecution subpoenaed Fitzpatrick to testify, he removed himself from the case, which was then assigned to Judge Charles R. Holley. Shortly after that, Gene Miller launched his series on the case in the Herald.
In 1968, Willie Mae Lee recanted her accusations against Lee and Pitts in an interview with Gulf County officials, including the prosecutor, J. Frank Adams, who was not related to Curtis Adams. Lee said she had lied because her principal interrogator, Joe Townsend, had threatened her. The prosecutor chose not to disclose the recantation to the defense.
As the hearing on the state habeas approached in 1969, Curtis Adams disavowed his confession, although he suggested he would reaffirm it in exchange for immunity from the death penalty. In a motion his attorney filed with Judge Holley, Adams said he was “possessed of information” that would demonstrate the innocence of Lee and Pitts. Without ruling on the motion, Holley listened to the taped confession. Adams was called to the stand. He denied committing the crime and, when asked whether the voice on the tape was his, responded, “I refuse to answer on the grounds it might tend to incriminate me.” At the conclusion of the hearing in April 1969, Holley vacated the convictions. He rejected the claims that Turner had been incompetent and that the confessions of Lee and Pitts had been coerced, but held that their guilty pleas “reasonably may have been the result of fear.”
In December 1970, the Florida Court of Appeals reversed Holley, reinstating the convictions and death sentences. While that decision was on appeal in early 1971, J. Frank Adams inadvertently showed a Tallahassee newspaper reporter Willie Mae Lee’s initial statement accusing Lambson Smith of having committed the crime with Pitts. The Tallahassee reporter, Larry Vickers, told Gene Miller about the statement. Miller in turn told Wilbert Lee’s lawyer, Hubbart, who subpoenaed it. In response, State Attorney Adams first denied that it existed, but was forced to surrender it a few days later — after an investigator working for him acknowledged having seen it.
Based on the statement, Florida Attorney General Robert L. Shevin filed a motion joining the defense request for a new trial and admitting that the prosecution had illegally withheld the statement. As a result, on April 12, 1971, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the convictions of Lee and Pitts and remanded the case for a new trial. Defense lawyers sought a change of venue, hoping to escape the racially charged atmosphere of Gulf County. The change was granted, but to Jackson County, where black people had been lynched in the 1930s and 1940s and where Ku Klux Klan activity remained commonplace. The defense sought yet another change, but Judge David R. Smith denied it.
In late December 1971, Shevin, the attorney general, granted Gene Miller access to previously secret investigative files pertaining to the case. In them, Miller found a report documenting Willie Mae Lee’s 1968 recantation of her confession, which Gulf County State Attorney J. Frank Adams had illegally held from the defense — just as he had withheld her 1963 statement implicating Lambson Smith.
Despite the mounting evidence of the defendants’ innocence, the trial proceeded before Judge Smith and yet another all-white jury. Again the star witness was Willie Mae Lee, who now recanted her recantation, swearing now that she had been with Lee and Pitts when they committed the crime. She had said otherwise in 1968, she said, “because it seemed like nobody believed me. . . and this white man [Curtis Adams] had said he did it, and I had done told them over and over who did it.”
Judge Smith granted a defense motion to exclude the defendants’ confessions to Townsend and Sheriff Daffin, but allowed the prosecution to tell the jury about their admissions in court when they pleaded guilty in 1963. The defense called Curtis Adams, but he asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination when Irwin Block asked him if he killed Burkett and Floyd. Judge Smith refused to allow Block to play the recording of Adams’ 1966 confession.
The jury deliberated an hour and forty-five minutes on March 15, 1972, before returning a verdict of guilty, whereupon Judge Smith immediately sentenced Lee and Pitts again to death. The following June 29, they were among ninety-seven Florida death row prisoners whose death sentences were changed to life sentences by the Furman decision.
Among those who found the convictions troubling was Chris Burkett, the son of murder-victim Jesse L. Burkett. Burkett wrote Governor Askew, a former Panhandle prosecutor, asking him to investigate. Prompted by that request, as well as by the Herald coverage, Askew took the unusual and politically courageous step of launching a review even though Lee and Pitts had not exhausted their appeals.
On September 9, 1975, Attorney General Shevin and a polygraph operator, interviewed Curtis Adams in prison. No longer facing the death penalty as a result of the Furman decision, Adams now unequivocally affirmed in a tape-recorded interview that he had committed the murders. “I shot Jesse and then shot Floyd,” said Adams.
The next day, Askew told his cabinet, “I cannot categorically state who murdered Grover Floyd and Jesse Burkett. But there is more than enough evidence for me to seriously question the guilt of Pitts and Lee. This evidence, in fact, points to their innocence.” He signed pardons the morning of September 11, 1975. Early in the afternoon, Lee and Pitts, in the words of Gene Miller, “walked from the shadow of death into the sunlight.”
No disciplinary or criminal action ever was taken regarding the police and prosecutorial misconduct in the case, and Curtis Adams was never prosecuted for the crime. Finally, in May 1998, the Florida General Assembly awarded Lee and Pitts compensation – $500,000 each, or $113 for each day of wrongful imprisonment. Lee died in October 2018.
– Researched by Jonah Horowitz and Sam Weiner
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.