Local Obituaries

He spent 12 years on Death Row for murders he didn’t commit. Wilbert Lee dies at 83

Gene Miller, center, with Freddie Pitts, left and Wilbert Lee, right, who were death-row inmates when Miller, a reporter with the Miami Herald, helped free them in 1975. This won Miller his second Pulitzer Prize in 1976.
Gene Miller, center, with Freddie Pitts, left and Wilbert Lee, right, who were death-row inmates when Miller, a reporter with the Miami Herald, helped free them in 1975. This won Miller his second Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Miami Herald File

A Miami Herald editorial once said: “Wilbert Lee could write the book on the mountain of justice, about the awful view from the bottom and the magnificent panorama at the top, about the many paths that connect the two and how twisted and tangled they are.”

Lee, who died Oct. 17 at his Miami home at 83 of a heart attack, knew the “slow, hard climb” for justice, the Herald opined in its 1987 piece.

Lee was one of two black men railroaded into Florida’s Death Row for the 1963 murder of two white gas station attendants in Port St. Joe, a small Florida Panhandle town.

Lee and Freddie Pitts were beaten so severely by police that they had knots the size of lemons on their heads when they were coerced into “confessing” to crimes that they didn’t commit; it happened the same month as Dr. Martin Luther King’s August 1963 March on Washington.

They were convicted despite the confession of a white man, Curtis Lee Adams, who admitted he killed the gas station attendants. Both Lee and Pitts spent 12 years in prison and on Death Row before Florida’s Gov. Reubin Askew pardoned them in September 1975.

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Wilbert Lee, right, reflects his relief as he leaves the capitol with Freddie Pitts, left, after approval of their claims bill of $500,000 each by the Florida Legislature on April 30, 1998, in Tallahassee. The pair were released after spending 12 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. MARK FOLEY AP

Askew’s pardon came about through the painstaking legwork of Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller, who, along with Warren Holmes, a Miami police detective and a pioneer in modern polygraphy, proved that Lee and Pitts were innocent.

Miller, who died in 2005, won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for reporting on the Lee-Pitts case that led to the pardon.

When Miller died, Lee, then 70, told the Herald Miller was like a family member. “I think about all those nights and weekends, over all those years, Gene spent working on my case when he could have been home with his wife and children. He was a very great person. He believed in justice and he was a fighter for justice.”

Lee and Pitts still had to wait another 23 years for a measure of justice or restitution — and even that came up short. Then-state Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, sponsored a compensation bill in the House that failed time and again, before it finally passed in 1998 — 35 years after Pitts and Lee were wrongly imprisoned.

The Legislature tempered its action by handing the matter over to an administrative law judge, Meek said. The state ultimately was compelled to pay Lee and Pitts $500,000 apiece. “Askew cited substantial doubt about their guilt,” the Miami Herald reported at the time.

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As former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles signs their claims bill, an emotional Wilbert Lee breaks into tears on the shoulder of then-Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, right, on May 1, 1998, in Tallahassee, Florida. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, left, and Freddie Pitts, second from left, watch the signing. Pitts and Lee, pardoned after 12 years in prison for murders they maintain they did not commit, will receive $500,000 each after an administrative law judge decides to release the compensation. MARK FOLEY AP

But the figure didn’t come with a formal state apology.

Lee’s younger sister Linda Haggins Smith has yet to bury her brother. She’s hoping Gov. Rick Scott will offer that apology in person on behalf of the state at Lee’s funeral Saturday afternoon at Miami’s Peaceful Zion Missionary Baptist Church. In that way, she said, her brother can hear it in spirit. But she hasn’t gotten the response she’s wanted. (Scott is campaigning for a Senate seat in Tuesday’s midterm election against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.)

Lee, born May 20, 1935, in Evergreen, Alabama, always took life’s disappointment in stride. Smith admired what she called her big brother’s ”I-can-do-it attitude.”

“He was always pushing and wanting to do better and wanting you to understand that life is a journey, that life is darkness, but at the same time you can bring light to whatever situation or whatever roadblocks get in your way,” Smith said.

Meek admired that trait too.

“Wilbert was as gentle as a butterfly,” Meek said. “Even in private he was never in an angry way toward his accusers and the legislative process. He and Freddie were an example of Jim Crow in Dade County. He would always say, ‘Let’s get together in a prayer circle.’ He was that kind of man.”

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Freddie Pitts (left) and Wilbert Lee (right) in Raiford prison on Sept. 14, 1975, hours before their release to friends and family. John Pineda Miami Herald File

Meek remembers the day Lee approached him at his district office to share his story.

“He shared it with me from beginning to end, what had happened to them,” Meek said. “Here I am, a former state trooper, a former Florida A&M linebacker, and after hearing his story I didn’t see any hatred in his heart or even in his eyes. I had to excuse myself and went into the bathroom and wept on what had happened to him and to Freddie Pitts. He was so at peace with it and the injustice the state of Florida had taken him through for so many years.”

After Lee’s release from prison, he worked as a youth counselor for Florida’s Health and Rehabilitative Services. In 1985, he was honored as Florida’s Juvenile Detention Worker of the Year. That same year, despite the pardon, Lee was fired after the Legislature ruled against allowing ex-cons to work with children.

Lee sued in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. He lost. He appealed. In 1987, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled that the law had been misapplied to Lee. The court said he could return to youth counseling. Lee opted to stay at a new job he’d taken in the interim: counseling adult felons for the Miami-Dade County Corrections Department.

“He had the softest heart, he was a big teddy bear. You could lean on him for whatever,” Smith said of her brother, who loved football and who once told her he had aspired to become a lawyer.

“He was never angry or bitter,” she said.

Still, he couldn’t forget his past.

“He couldn’t shake that off. They stripped him of his dignity, his manhood, they took away everything a human being can have,” Smith said. “But he had his family around him to keep him uplifted. He was the kind of man who if you asked him for a glass of water, he’d go and put ice in it and give it to you. He was an angel walking on this earth.”

Meek said that both men — Lee and Pitts, who is now 74 and who worked as a Miami Shores truck driver and who drove a shuttle bus between Fort Lauderdale and Key West — worked hard over the years to help change laws nationwide on behalf of people who are falsely imprisoned.

“He and Freddie did a lot of work and a number of states are looking at wrongful incarceration of individuals who don’t have the means to defend themselves,” Meek said. “His work will not be in vain.”

In addition to his sister, Lee’s survivors include his son Robert and daughter Robin Haggins; sisters Connie Johnson, Deborah Pitts, Roletha, Katrina, Vernika and Andrea Haggins; four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A wake will be held at 4 p.m. Friday at Range Funeral Home, 5727 NW 17th Ave., Miami. Services will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at Peaceful Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 2400 NW 68th St., Miami.

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