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A Times Editorial

Following trail of injustice

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001

Broward County's Frank Lee Smith is dead, but the issues raised by his conviction -- and his 14-year confinement for a capital crime DNA evidence confirms he did not commit -- are very much alive. Gov. Jeb Bush had no choice but to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the case, given the serious charge of perjury leveled against sheriff's detective Richard Scheff, whose morphing testimony was key in sending Smith to death row and keeping him there until he died of natural causes. Only time will tell if the special investigation becomes an exercise in getting at the truth -- or in whitewashing.

Bush quietly put State Attorney Bruce H. Colton on the case in late January, following public calls to do so. Colton's job is to determine the validity of allegations, made by Smith's family and others, that Scheff concocted a "phantom" photo line-up to discredit a key eye witness intent on recanting -- and to keep an innocent man he begrudged on death row.

Though the probe's initial focus is on one detective in one case, Colton has a duty to follow investigative trails where they lead. Were Scheff's superiors -- or the prosecutors who repeatedly put him on the stand -- complicit in any act of perjury? The fact that several of those prosecutors have since become judges should not deter Colton from asking, or pushing until he gets answers. If Scheff lied in Smith's case, did he railroad other defendants, too? According to news reports, Scheff was involved in at least two other cases in which innocent suspects were wrongly charged with murder.

Though Scheff retains a presumption of innocence, the allegations against him go to the very core of our criminal justice system. Sadly, accusations of law enforcement corruption and overreach have become all too common. In Hillsborough County, two detectives are being investigated for possible perjury in connection with the Aisenberg wiretaps, while in Jacksonville, Bush last week ordered a probe into allegations that a detective coerced a confession from a teenager who was later acquitted.

It's bad enough when the system sends an innocent man to prison by accident. It's intolerable if it does so by design.

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