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With emotion, Pitts-Lee bill moves forward

Tears, anger and hope marked an emotional debate on the Senate floor Tuesday as legislators considered a bill that would award money to Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two Miami men who were sent to prison 35 years ago for a murder that another man has admitted committing.

Compensation for the two men has been a cause among black legislators for 22 years. Pitts and Lee were pardoned by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975 after serving 12 years in prison, most of it on death row. They were convicted of murdering a white service station attendant in Florida's panhandle.

This year the bill is close to reality, but the House and Senate are sharply divided over the amount of money the two men should receive and how they should get it.

The House has passed a bill that puts the issue in the lap of a hearing officer at the Department of Administrative Hearings. The bill would give the officer the discretion to award up to $350,000 to each man. However, a Senate committee voted Monday to give each man $1.5-million.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, sponsor of the bill, agreed to lower the award to a maximum of $500,000, saying House leaders will kill the bill if the Senate doesn't lower its demand.

"I am ashamed of this bill," Holzendorf said. "But I know this is the only way. The House has wrapped it around our neck. I resent it so much, I'd jeopardize any bill I have down there to let them know it."

Accusing House leaders of "playing politics" with the lives of two men who spent 12 years in prison for a murder they did not commit, Holzendorf said she was supporting the $500,000 award only because it is the best hope to get Pitts and Lee "closer to justice than they've ever been."

Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, urged the Senate to ignore the House position and award the men $1-million each and attempt to convince the House to accept a compromise.

I don't believe $500,000 is enough for 12 years on death row," Jones said. "It wouldn't be adequate for anyone in this room, and you'd be screaming to high heaven over the paltry amount."

As reasons the state should pay Pitts and Lee, Jones cited abuse by sheriff's deputies, a conviction that occurred in just 28 days, the failure of Gulf County to even investigate the repeated confessions of another man, evidence that was withheld from the defense and the appointment of a defense attorney who was the family lawyer of the victim.

Several other senators rose to denounce the amount of money as being far too small to repay the two men for the time they spent in prison.

Sen. Pat Thomas, D-Quincy, was the only member to oppose any award.

Near tears as he spoke, Thomas said he has struggled with the case, which arose in his North Florida district. Thomas said he studied all of the background material on the case, prayed over it and sought out people involved in the investigation and trial.

"I hope my friends will forgive me, but I am not comfortable voting for this," Thomas said. "Before us are people who were twice convicted of murder, and their appeals were rejected. I've tried to weigh it. I don't find that any exoneration took place. Grace was extended by the pardon. But I would celebrate the end of this, one way or another."

Tears flowed down his cheeks as Thomas sat down and buried his face in his hands.

After several hours' debate, the Senate approved a bill that is expected to win acceptance in the House and offer Pitts and Lee a chance at a hearing that could award them a maximum of $500,000 each plus attorneys' fees. The bill would require a hearing by July 1 and must go back to the House for a final vote before it goes to Gov. Lawton Chiles, where it is expected to win approval.