Acting with unusual speed, Gov. Lawton Chiles Friday signed a bill that could lead to compensation for Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two Miami men who spent a dozen years on death row for murders another man admitted committing.
Lee, a reserved, mustachioed 62-year-old corrections counselor, collapsed in tears as he thanked Chiles and legislators who helped pass a bill that grants each of them $500,000, pending the outcome of a hearing.
The two black men were sentenced to death for the 1963 murders of two white service station attendants in Port St. Joe. Gov. Reubin Askew pardoned them in 1975 after another man confessed to the crimes, but it has taken until now to win possible compensation for the time they spent in prison.
On Thursday, legislators approved a bill that puts the case in the hands of a state hearing officer who will decide whether the state acted wrongly and whether the two men should be compensated. On Friday, Chiles said he was signing the bill immediately to bring the divisive case to a close as soon as possible.
Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey will help Ronald Lieberman, the Miami attorney who has represented the men for more than two decades, present their case. It must be decided by July 1.
"It's been a long journey," Lee told a crowd of black legislators and reporters gathered to watch Chiles sign the bill. "Thirty-five years and 22 years of coming to Tallahassee. I met many people who said they were Christians and believed in God, but we failed in the past."
Unable to finish, Lee collapsed into the arms of the governor and legislators who surrounded him. Later Lee said he was trying to say that he hopes those who say they are Christians and voted against any award can live in peace.
"I really don't know where God is," Lee said. "We must have two Gods. I must have served the right one to be where we are here today."
Pitts thanked legislative sponsors who decided to play "in your face politics" to gain passage of the bill. The difference this year: Republican legislative leaders have been wooing black Democratic lawmakers angry at their treatment by their own party.
"But there is no end to this nightmare," Pitts added. "I'm scarred for life with it. I've worked through it to where I can live with it, but compensation doesn't make it bearable, but it says some people in Florida have at least begun to mature enough to say, the state was wrong, maybe you deserve something."
Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, sponsor of the House bill, praised members of the Black Caucus who got the bill through after forging an alliance with Republican leaders.
"Pitts and Lee have been through a great struggle serving on death row," Meek said. "I can't imagine serving a day on death row, let alone waiting 36 years for justice."
Florida will be a better state as a result of the Legislature's action, said Rep. Alzo Reddick, D-Orlando.
For many black legislators, the Pitts and Lee bill was every bit as important as the 1995 bill passed to compensate the families of blacks who died in the fiery rampage that destroyed the black community of Rosewood in 1923.
But passage of a bill that leaves compensation up to a hearing officer was bittersweet for some legislators who wanted to pass a claims bill that would award damages without additional hearings.
"I wish it could have been a claims bill that would award them 10 times more," said Rep. Les Miller, D-Tampa. "I cannot imagine being shaved twice for the electric chair."