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Senators boost former inmates' case

Lawmakers agree Florida owes something to two Miami men wrongfully imprisoned for 12 years. The question is how much.

Last week, the state House voted to pay Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee $350,000 apiece, but two Senate committees on Monday hiked the compensation offer to $1.5-million each.

"What happened to those guys is unconscionable," said Sen. John Ostalkiewicz, R-Windermere. "We ought to make a statement that that nobody gets railroaded in the state of Florida, and if somebody does we're going to pay."

After 22 years of trying to win compensation from lawmakers, Pitts and Lee have never been closer to success. But if the House and Senate do not settle on a dollar figure by Friday, the two men will once again leave Tallahassee with nothing.

House Speaker Daniel Webster showed little interest in the higher figure Monday evening.

"We don't have the money to pay for it," he said. "We sent over our proposal. That's the one I'm committed to passing."

Several House members eager to get more money for Pitts and Lee shrugged off Webster's comments.

"With all the money we have floating around in the budget and all the turkeys I've seen, we're going to quibble over this?" asked Rep. Beryl Roberts-Burke, D-Miami.

Pitts and Lee are both African-American, and their cause has long been championed by the Legislature's Black Caucus. The compensation bill's popularity this year highlights how Republican leaders have reached out to black lawmakers this year.

State Sen. Bill Turner, D-Miami, called the $350,000 House offer "an insult to their dignity and to all African-Americans. Pitts and Lee lost 12 years of their freedom. They are free men now, but if a sufficient amount is not appropriated, we are robbing them of their dignity."

Pitts, now a 54-year-old trucking company owner, and Lee, a 62-year-old corrections counselor, went to prison in 1963, convicted of murdering two Panhandle service station attendants. They spent 12 years in prison, 9{ on death row, even after another man confessed to the murders.

Gov. Reubin Askew pardoned them in 1975, and neither has been in trouble with the law since. For more than two decades, they have sought compensation from the Legislature.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Fred Dudley, R-Cape Coral, initially warned his colleagues that recommending anything significantly different from the House proposal could kill any compensation for Pitts and Lee this year. But with overwhelming support for dramatically raising the amount, Dudley joined the unanimous committee vote.

"The compensation of Mr. Pitts and Mr. Lee is about a whole lot more and a much bigger picture than putting money in the pockets of Mr. Pitts and Mr. Lee," said state Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa. "This is an opportunity to close a racial chapter of Florida history and I believe it's time to do it."

The Senate Ways and Means committee also approved giving each $1.5-million, which was the original amount sought by House sponsor Kendrick Meek, D-Miami. The total package would be $3.75-million including legal fees.

Even if the Senate proposal is approved by the House, Pitts and Lee would not be guaranteed compensation, however. An administrative law judge would have to determine if the state committed a wrongful act or violated Pitts' and Lee's civil rights.

Although the two men expressed gratitude at the House vote last week, Pitts said Monday he wants to seek more, even if it means risking receiving nothing this year.

The $350,000 proposal, he said, "is like a kick in the rear-end."