tampabay.com

Davis apologizes for vote

The Democrat shifts ground and says he was wrong to oppose compensation for two wrongfully convicted men.

By ALEX LEARY and TAMARA LUSH
Published September 12, 2006


MIAMI — U.S. Rep. Jim Davis apologized and said he made a mistake 16 years ago when he voted not to compensate two wrongfully convicted black men who served 12 years in prison on murder charges.

“If you’re looking for the perfect candidate, it’s not me,” the Democratic nominee for governor said Tuesday during a news conference in Miami, while seated next to the two men.

The apology came after Davis was criticized for the vote, made while he represented Tampa in the state Legislature, during his primary campaign. One critic was U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, who told Davis he would have problems gaining support in Florida’s black community unless he confronted the issue.

Davis had previously said there was not enough evidence to support payment, and said the vote was being used to misrepresent his overall standing on civil rights.

Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee were convicted of the 1963 murders of two white service station attendants in Port St. Joe, a rural North Florida town.

They were pardoned in 1975 after Gov. Reubin Askew said there was substantial doubt about their guilt. Another man confessed to the murders but was never formally charged.

Lawmakers first tried to get compensation for Pitts and Lee in 1979 and continued to try year after year thereafter. In 1990, the issue came before Davis and the rest of the House claims committee. The vote was 6-4 against restitution and did not split along party or geographical lines. But it left a roomful of bitter feelings.

“How in the world could I have voted against this?’’ Davis asked Tuesday. He answered his own question, saying as a young lawyer, he viewed the case in too technical terms.

In the Democratic primary against Rod Smith, Davis’ vote was the subject of a barrage of radio and mail attacks financed by Florida sugar companies. During their only televised debate, Smith pointedly told Davis, “You are the reason that justice has been denied.”

As the days went on, Davis came under increasing pressure to say something beyond there was “not enough evidence,” a response that struck some as too lawyer-like, not from the heart.

Davis made the rounds at black churches in South Florida on the Sunday before the election and came close to admitting a mistake, saying he would re-read the case file.

Davis said Tuesday he realized that he should have voted to give the men compensation. “I am determined to learn from my mistake,” he said.

Still, he would not say whether he would try to change the state’s claims bill procedure if elected governor.

Currently, people who are wronged by state agencies must seek legislative approval for compensation. Few claims bills have passed in recent years, and lawmakers say it is in part because personal injury lawyers and lobbyists receive much of the settlement.

“There are way too many politics in this process,” Davis said. “I am not here to offer changes to the claims bills process, but it is broken.”

On Tuesday, as Miami’s black community leaders looked on, Pitts and Lee said they accepted Davis’ apology and said they would support his candidacy.

“It takes a good person to stand up and admit that he made a mistake,” said Lee, who is now 70.

Pitts, who is 62, said he was impressed when Davis called him during the primary and apologized that the case was back in the media — even though it was Smith who raised the issue.

Former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami also threw her support behind Davis, saying that he has a good record of voting for issues that support the black community.

“This man has never turned against us,” she said.

Pitts and Lee received compensation in 1998. They were given $500,000 each for the 12 years they spent in prison, nine on death row. Charlie Crist — the Republican nominee for governor  -— was then a state senator from St. Petersburg. He co-sponsored the legislation that allowed the men to be compensated.

This is not the first time Davis has faced questions about his vote. In his successful 1996 run for congress, opponent Sandy Freedman, the former mayor of Tampa, ran radio ads about the vote. Davis said then that he stood by his decision.

Reaction to Davis’ apology was positive in some political circles.

“It was the right thing to do,” said state Rep. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, a possible lieutenant governor pick for Davis (the decision will be made by Thursday).

“It will go a long way in the African-American community but also a long way in the general community because you have a politician saying, 'I made a mistake, I made a bad vote.’ That’s refreshing to everyone.”

Rep. Curtis Richardson of Tallahassee, who also is black and a Davis supporter, said Davis was sincere in his apology.

“When you make a vote, you make it based on the best information you had available at the time. I can’t imagine, knowing Jim Davis like I do, that his vote would be with any malice or discrimination or bigotry at all. I’m sure he truly felt he was making the appropriate vote at the time.”

A spokesman for Crist, however, said politics motivated Davis to change his stance.

“We are glad that the polls reminded him of his deeply held convictions,’’ said George LeMieux, Crist’s chief of staff. “This is one of the clear differences in this race — Charlie Crist has a proven record of fighting for civil rights.’’

Alex Leary can be reached at 850-224-7263 or at aleary@sptimes.com.