tampabay.com

Davis owns up to voting errors

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate says he made a mistake when he voted to deny compensation for two men convicted then cleared of killing two gas station attendants.

By TAMARA LUSH and ALEX LEARY
Published September 12, 2006


MIAMI — With Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee at his side, Jim Davis apologized Tuesday for his 1990 vote to deny restitution to the wrongfully convicted men.

“I made a mistake,” Davis said during a 1 p.m. news conference at the Carrie Meek center in Miami. “If you’re looking for the perfect candidate, it’s not me.”

Davis asked Pitts and Lee, who are black, for forgiveness and said he would advance issues facing the African-American community, including restoration of voting rights for felons who have served their time.

“I will listen. I will learn,” Davis said. “I am stronger for this experience.”

Said Lee: “It takes a good person to stand up and admit he made a mistake.”

Pitts and 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 in 1966 but was never formally charged.)

Lawmakers first tried to get compensation for Pitts and Lee in 1979 and tried each year after. 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.

It left a roomful of bitter feelings.

“One member said we either slap northwest Florida by doing this or you slap the black people in this state. The Legislature made its choice,” state Rep. James Burke, the bill sponsor, said at the time.

Another eight years went by before Pitts and Lee were compensated. They were given $500,000 each for the 12 years they spent in prison, nine on death row.

This is not the first time Davis has faced questions about his vote. In his successful 1996 run for congress, opponent Sandy Freeman of Tampa ran radio ads about the vote. Davis said then that there was not enough evidence to support the payment.

He maintained that stance in the primary election, even as it appeared the issue – highlighted in attack ads paid for Big Sugar – was hurting his standing.

The day after winning the election, Davis was urged by U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, and others to confront the issue before it further hurt his chances of replacing Jeb Bush in the the governor’s mansion.