Image by Nathan Dumlao

SAVED BY CLEANING OUT THE CLOSET: HOW DNA THAT WAS GOING TO BE THROWN OUT SAVED FRANK LEE SMITH FROM DEATH ROW

This case involves the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl. It was a horrific crime. Truly barbaric. Frank Lee Smith became the suspect when he was seen around the block in the days after the crime. Later we would learn that his face bears some similarities with the serial killer who committed this crime. But at the time he was charged, he was just their suspect. There was only one person who identified him with confidence. That was Chiquita Lowe. When she was shown a photo to try and identify the man she saw, Chiquita Low was hesitant. But the police pressured her into identifying the suspect with confidence because they needed it to get justice for the victim. They argued that without her picking somebody, they couldn't get justice. Chiquita Lowe did her best to pick who she thought was the culprit. But when she got to trial and she saw Frank Lee Smith in person, she started to think she hadn’t chosen right. But she felt pressure from the State to conform. To her credit, she was only 19 years old. The police who were putting pressure on a teenage girl should be the ones to blame. But regardless of blame, a lot of negative consequences followed. The first of which was that Frank Lee Smith was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

The ramifications did not end with Smith though. The real perpetrator was Eddie Lee Mosley. A man who committed 17 murders and 60 rapes that we know of. A majority of which came after Frank Lee Smith’s conviction. You can read more about Eddie Lee Mosley in my article about Jerry Townsend who was also wrongfully convicted for other crimes that Eddie Lee Mosley committed. But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to segue to talking about how Frank Lee Smith got exonerated.

Years later, a private investigator working for the defense showed Chiquita Lowe a picture of Eddie Lee Mosley. Chiquita was shaken, literally trembling when she saw the picture. I invite you to watch PBS’s Frontline episode about this case (Requiem for Frank Lee Smith). She immediately identified him as being the killer and was overcome with grief that she had mistakenly played a part in sending the wrong man to prison. She tried to make things right and wanted to testify to help him. She had never seen Eddie Lee Mosley’s picture in the previous lineups*. And she tried to explain that if she had seen him earlier, she would have identified him because he was the man she saw. But the government fought tooth and nail to keep the conviction. They were convinced Frank Lee Smith was still guilty even though there was no physical evidence and their only solid eyewitness was recanting.

The defense and the government butted heads for years litigating post-conviction issues. The judge denied a motion for a new trial even though Chiquita Lowe testified that another man was the real rapist and killer. The State opposed the testing of the DNA despite the advances in DNA technology since the trial and the fact that there were very strong reasons to suspect the conviction was in error. If it had only been up to the legal process, in all likelihood, Frank Lee Smith would have been executed. However, serendipity came to the rescue.

Detective John Curcio was cleaning out the inventory in the homicide unit. He was planning to dispose of evidence in all of the closed cases, and to recategorize items in open cases so they could be re-investigated. The DNA for Franke Lee Smith was a closed case. Many law enforcement would have just thrown out the DNA at this moment. Detective Curcio did not. He knew that for years, Doug Evans (who had recently retired, but was a career detective for the Ft. Lauderdale police) had been telling anyone who would listen that they had a serial killer in south Florida and his name was Eddie Lee Mosley. Mosley had an M.O., he would rape black females, and leave the scene with the shirt of the victim on, but the pants would be off. This is precisely the way that the victim had died in the case that Frank Lee Smith was wrongfully convicted for.

For reasons that are unfathomable in retrospect, Doug Evans’s theory was dismissed by other members of law enforcement. Other officers thought he was obsessed with Eddie Lee Mosley and discounted his theory. They continued to look in other directions even though a lifetime of investigation had led Doug Evans to correctly draw the conclusion that all of these rape/murders of black females were the work of Eddie Lee Mosley. It is with this in mind that Detective Curcio decided to take the DNA from Frank Lee Smith’s case, and test it against Frank Lee Smith and Eddie Lee Mosley. When the results came back, Frank Lee Smith was excluded, and Eddie Lee Mosley was identified as the culprit. And as elaborated in my Jerry Townsend article, DNA sent by Detective Curcio in his case also excluded Townsend and identified Eddie Lee Mosley as the culprit. A rogue detective sending in DNA on his own initiative to pacify the hunches of a retired detective is the only reason that the DNA was ever tested. The government was opposing it and the judge had already ruled against it being tested. That such injustices are unearthed in such unlikely circumstances should cause everyone to shudder. How many more innocents are wrongfully convicted, but we would never have known unless actors from outside the usual chain of command acted? We will never know.

If you are falsely accused, you cannot count on someone like Detective Curcio to test your DNA just for the hell of it as he is cleaning out the evidence closet. This is such a rare thing. I’m unaware of any other case where there was a legal dispute over whether DNA should be tested, and the DNA is spontaneously tested from someone unconnected with the dispute. But what you can guard against if you are being falsely accused by a stranger eyewitness is making sure the procedures are followed to minimize the likelihood of a false identification.

Chiquita Lowe was never shown a picture of the real suspect.* She was given photographs of numerous people. And she chose one. It’s an unfortunate human failing that when given options, we sometimes have a tendency to just pick the answer that’s closest. There is also the problem that the police were exerting pressure on her to pick somebody. Under these circumstances, the eyewitness identification becomes unreliable. If you are falsely accused based on eyewitness identification, it is essential that reliability of the identification be challenged if unreliable methods were used. “just pick somebody” gets an identification, but it can just as easily be the wrong identification. Ask your attorney to move to exclude identification evidence if unreliable methods are used.

*The State later tries to argue that a picture of Eddie Lee Mosley was shown to Chiquita Lowe originally, but this is contradicted by the photos and prior testimony (see the Frontline episode for more on this).