11 months after death row inmate dies of cancer, DNA clears him

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - An inmate who died of cancer on death row 11 months ago has been cleared by DNA in the 1985 rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl, and an aide to Gov. Jeb Bush said Thursday he is planning similar tests for other condemned prisoners.

Frank Lee Smith died at age 52 after 14 years on death row for the slaying of Shandra Whitehead, who was raped, beaten and choked in her bedroom in Fort Lauderdale. Smith was scheduled for execution in 1990 but won a stay.

''If the FBI data is accurate, clearly this man should not have been on death row,'' said Bush spokeswoman Katie Baur.

''Over the last several months the governor's office has been in the process of researching a method to provide DNA testing for all death row inmates in which that DNA test would prove their innocence,'' she added.

Baur said Bush had been working closely with lawmakers and the state attorney general's office and planned to make an announcement about the testing plan soon.

The FBI has not written its final report on the Smith case, but prosecutor Carolyn McCann said she called the bureau earlier this week and was told: ''He has been excluded. He didn't do it.''

McCann, who was not the prosecutor at the trial but represented the state during the appeals, said she was upset by the DNA findings.

''Nobody wants to feel like the wrong person was in jail,'' she said Thursday. ''It's a bad feeling.''

The girl's family has been told, and the investigation has been reopened, McCann said, adding: ''We have suspects that the defense has been presenting all along.''

Geoffrey Smith, who had been Smith's lawyer, did not immediately return a call for comment.

At the trial, three witnesses testified against the defendant, including the girl's mother, who said she saw Smith at the living room window, and a woman who said she saw him in front of the victim's house just before the murder. But that woman later said the man she saw was someone else.

Smith, who had two other killings on his record and had been paroled in 1981, claimed insanity. But after his defense failed a jury recommended the death penalty.

Before his death, lawyers on both sides of the case were fighting over DNA. McCann said Smith's lawyers wanted to have his DNA tested but wanted to keep the results to themselves. She said she refused to agree to that.

''My whole point of doing DNA testing was that I thought he was guilty,'' McCann said.

Months after Smith's death, an agreement was worked out, and a vial of Smith's blood was compared with semen found on the girl.

At least nine former death row inmates across the country have been exonerated because of DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that has provided legal assistance to prisoners.

Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty because 13 death row inmates have had their convictions overturned since 1977.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment