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Freeing Pitts and Lee

Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller Monday won journalism's highest honor - the Pulitzer Prize - for general local reporting.

Miller is the first journalist ever to win the Pulitzer in that category more than once.

He was awarded a Pulitzer in 1967 for two separate newspaper investigations that freed from prison a man and a woman wrongfully convicted of murder.

He was awarded his second Pulitzer for more than eight years of reporting that led to a full pardon last year for Death Row inmates Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee.

Miami Herald Executive Editor Larry Jinks broke the news to Miller at 3:08 p.m. Monday as the newsroom broke into spontaneous applause and cheers.

"Oh, Jesus," Miller said. "I feel good."

"Well," allowed Jinks, "you should feel good."

Miller, 47, is a skinny, bespectacled reporter with a penchant for bow ties - and for the dramatic quote in his stories. The award left him virtually speechless.

Jinks called Miller's Pitts-Lee investigation "one of the finest examples of determined reporting that I've ever seen and the prize is richly deserved.

"He was stubborn, he was courageous, he was persistent and he was right."

Jinks had called Miller at his Westchester-area home, where it had been suggested to Miller that he await news of the Pulitzer decision. Monday was Miller's day off.

The last time Miller won the Pulitzer, editors recalled, a reporter and photographer had to track him down to a picnic spot on Key Biscayne. He was off work that day too.

After learning of the award Monday, Miller immediately called his 72-year-old mother in Evansville, Ind.

She was playing bridge with friends, Miller said. "She was happy," he said. "She told the bridge group I'd won the Pulitzer. They asked her, 'What is that?' "

Miller walked into The Herald newsroom an hour later to a rousing reception and a can of Busch Bavarian beer. He ignored the beer. He is a dry martini man.

He wrote a two-paragraph statement:

"The man primarily responsible for the exoneration and freedom of Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee is the governor of Florida, Reubin Askew.

"My role was secondary and dependent upon the support of Larry Jinks, my editor, and the skill and labor of Warren Holmes, my partner in crime, and two superb lawyers, Philip Hubbart and Irwin Block."

Askew had been persuaded by Miller's reporting that Pitts and Lee were innocent of a double slaying in Port St. Joe 13 years ago - murders to which a white inmate later confessed. Pitts and Lee are black.

But Askew disagreed Monday with Miller: "while it took an act of government to ultimately free Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee," he said, "the one man to whom they really owe their freedom is Gene Miller."

"His relentless pursuit of the truth over a period of years was in the finest tradition of journalism and it earned Gene Miller, rightfully, his profession's highest honor."

Miller is only the 11th journalist to win more than one Pulitzer Prize, said John Hohenberg, secretary to the Pulitzer advisory committee.

Knight-Ridder newspaper have won 19 Pulitzer Prizes, including one for editorial cartooning awarded Monday to Tony Auth of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Herald has won three Pulitzers - Miller's two and one in 1951 in the public service category for crime reporting.

Miller, whose quarter-century of reporting has won him virtually every major journalism honor, won his first Pulitzer in 1967.

In the Pitts-Lee case, Miller teamed with Miami polygraph criminologist Warren Holmes, as he had in earlier freeing two others wrongfully convicted on murder charges - Airman Joseph Shea and Mary Katherin Hampton.

Miller and Holmes worked night and day for two months gathering new evidence never heard at Shea's first trial. The Herald published Miller's long story on June 13, 1965.

The same day, State Attorney Richard Gerstein reopened the case. Shea was acquitted at a second trial.

Gerstein Monday said Miller's second Pulitzer "has to be one of the finest moments that any American journalist has ever experienced."

During the Shea investigation, Miller also became convinced that an 18-year-old Sandy Hook, Ky., farm girl of minimal intelligence, Miss Hampton, was innocent of two counts of murder to which she had pleaded guilty in Louisiana.

Miller did battle with the state of Louisiana to prove that Miss Hampton, whose confession was obtained under threat of the electric chair, was innocent.

She, too, was subsequently freed from prison.

It was the Pitts-Lee case that won national attention.

Miller had once worked in Richmond, Va., under editor James Kilpatrick, now a nationally syndicated columnist. Kilpatrick wrote about the case:

"The Pitts-Lee case has everything: everything bad ...

"For Gene Miller of The Miami Herald, it has been a tale of enormous injustice, and he will not let it go."

Pitts and Lee had been convicted of a predawn robbery-slaying on Aug. 1, 1963, of two Mo-Jo gas station attendants in Port St. Joe in Florida's Panhandle. They remained in prison despite the subsequent confession by a white convict to the murders. Miller wrote a book, "Invitation to a Lynching," based on the Pitts-Lee case.

One attorney who worked with Miller on the case, Dade County Public Defender Phillip Hubbart, called the award Monday "fantastic. He worked long and hard on that case. Without him, I wonder if they'd still be in prison today."

Holmes said: "That's great. Gene's major attribute is his tenacious honesty. I think it's most deserving for Gene Miller and The Miami Herald.

"I've always said the job couldn't be done without The Miami Herald. This exemplifies the best role of newspapers in our society as a check and balance."

The Pulitzer Prizes were endowed by the late Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the old New York World, and were first awarded in 1917.

They are awarded annually by the trustees of Columbia University on recommendation of an advisory board. Winners get $1,000 each.

Block said he knew of no one "more deserving of this award than Gene Miller. He's an outstanding credit to his profession. If not for Gene's ability and tenancity, two innocent men would probably now be dead and buried. I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude for the work he did on this case."

Miller has worked for The Herald since 1957. He and Electra Miller have four children, Janet, 21, a student at the University of South Florida in Tampa; Teri, 18, a high school senior; Tom, 15; and Robin, 14.