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After 22 years, bill passes on claim of ex-death row inmates

After a fight that has lasted a generation, legislators agreed Thursday to allow compensation for two men who spent 12 years on death row for murders another man has admitted committing.

Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee watched from the House gallery as members voted 105-11 for a bill that sends their case to a state hearing officer. If the officer determines that the state acted wrongfully when the men were sent to prison in 1963, each of the men can be awarded $500,000, plus attorneys fees of 25 percent.

Bill sponsor Kendrick Meek, who was born three years after the men went to prison, wept after the vote.

The measure goes now to Gov. Lawton Chiles, who is expected to approve it.

Authorities in Port St. Joe arrested Pitts and Lee shortly after the 1963 murderers of two gas-station attendants because they had been involved in a ruckus over the attendants' refusal to let them use a whites-only restroom.

The two men were pardoned by Gov. Reubin Askew in 1975 and never have been in trouble since. They now live in Miami, where Pitts, 54, owns a trucking company and Lee, 62, works as a corrections counselor.

They have fought for 22 years for a claims bill to pay them damages for the years they spent in prison.

The difference this year: an unusual alliance between the Republicans who control the Legislature and members of the Black Caucus who were angered by the vote of white Democrats to oust a black leader.

"This is a bittersweet moment," Meek said as the House prepared to vote. "Some think it is an injustice to put them through a hearing, but we're finally doing something about it."

The Miami Democrat succeeded where many others, including his mother, Carrie Meek _ now a member of the U.S. House _ have failed.

After taking a few minutes to pull himself together, Meek said he has been conferring with his mother each day.

"She said to keep pushing because we've been trying for 22 years," Meek said. "I was getting discouraged."

Meek and Senate sponsor Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, helped push the issue to the forefront with the help of Rep. Willie Logan, D-Opa-locka, who was ousted from the leadership in January by white Democrats.

But not everyone, including Pitts and Lee, was happy about the outcome.

Unlike previous attempts, this year's bill does not make a direct award of money to the men. And the dollar amount that it permits is far less than the $1.5-million each that Meek's bill originally sought.

The requirement of a hearing made most members of the Black Caucus unhappy, but they agreed to accept the conditions as a compromise. For House Speaker Daniel Webster it was a way to get the controversial issue out of the hands of legislators, who will not have to pass judgment on the long-ago events.

"I don't trust this," Pitts said. "It's a cheap cop-out. They didn't have the guts to decide the issue themselves."

Lee was gentler in his comments: "We thank God that the speaker and some of the members had the heart to get us this far," he said after the vote. "Some of the pages torn out of this book 35 years ago have been restored. We look forward to a future when we don't have to come back this way."

Although most of the opposition to the bill has simmered beneath the surface, Rep. Jamey Westbrook, D-Bascom, spoke out on Thursday.

"I think Mr. Pitts and Mr. Lee are guilty _ there is no doubt about it," Westbrook said after voting against the bill. Ten others joined him in voting against the measure. Most live in North Florida, where Pitts and Lee were arrested and convicted in an era when it was difficult for black men accused of killing whites to find a fair trial.

"This is not an ordinary case," Webster said Thursday night. "We needed to get it out of the Legislature. We are not equipped to conduct a trial."