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Howard Rosenberg

Justice, and Its Bitter Aftertaste

April 08, 2002|Howard Rosenberg

A spate of convicts has earned freedom following "Frontline" films by Ofra Bikel that raised public awareness about their plights.

"When injustices in the system receive this kind of attention, the public will respond," attorney Mark Montgomery said in February, when his client, 21-year-old Terence Garner, was released from a North Carolina prison and granted a new trial less than a month after Bikel's "An Ordinary Crime" offered strong evidence of his innocence in an armed robbery that resulted in a death.

This time she's too late.

The subject of her newest PBS documentary, Thursday's "Requiem for Frank Lee Smith," had spent 14 years on Florida's death row when he died of painful cancer 10 months before DNA testing would exonerate him of raping and murdering 8-year-old Shandra Whitehead.

Smith was no angel.

At age 13 he was convicted of manslaughter. At 18 he was convicted of murder. He had already spent 15 years behind bars and was on parole when he was picked up by police in Fort Lauderdale and charged with Shandra's murder.

The murder that would attract Bikel to his case. The murder for which a jury found him guilty. The murder that brought him a cell a few steps from the Florida electric chair nicknamed "Old Sparky."

The murder he didn't commit.

Smith's vicious past makes this film--which methodically traces his abuse by the legal system--no less important or fascinating. Or his case any less sympathetic to Bikel, one of television's premier documentary filmmakers since the 1970s, including 15 productions for "Frontline." Although her films aren't magic wands that right wrongs, her camera wields the power to mobilize public opinion through exposure.

Miscarriages of justice fire her passion.

"The thing about crime that blows my mind is that people have no idea," she said by phone from New York City. "They don't realize that once you're sentenced, being innocent makes no difference. They could execute you knowing you're innocent. People know nothing about it."

And she does know? This petite, blond-frosted, elegant, expensively turned-out woman (we'll call her "mature") who wears big, tinted glasses and seals herself from street crime in her apartment above Central Park? Some impassioned crusader, some scruffy revolutionary.

"Are you kidding? I'm no revolutionary," protested Bikel in the soft hybrid voice (she's from Israel and attended college in Paris) heard in her films. "I'm a middle-class person. I love pretty furniture. I love jewelry. What I'm drawn to is the difference between perception and reality. If you like the system, be my guest. But at least know what it is. It's not a trial system, it's a plea-bargain system. It really gripes me when people say this is not a perfect system but it's the best in the world."

It griped her when she was making her 1990s "Innocence Lost" trilogy in tiny Edenton, N.C., where she initially resisted going because "I was told it was a little town that doesn't have a big hotel and doesn't take American Express." The yield was remarkable, though, an award-laden work documenting an odyssey of anguish endured by jailed defendants in a sexual abuse case at a day-care center called Little Rascals, shades of the McMartin preschool case. The two convictions, both leading to life sentences, were overturned as Bikel's third film in the series was about to air.

It griped her too when making "The Case for Innocence," whose three profiled "lifers" were set free in 2000, months after the film reported on DNA testing that appeared to confirm their claims of innocence regarding rape and murder.

It griped her when making "An Ordinary Crime," the documentary that whipped up public opinion that ultimately threw open Garner's cell. "All I wanted to do was get this boy out," she said. "It was such a setup. He obviously didn't do it."

It griped her, finally, when she was planning her latest film. "There was one more case, which we began to investigate and didn't have time to finish," says narrator Will Lyman to start the documentary. "And it haunted us, so we decided to go back to it two years later. It was the story of Frank Lee Smith."

It was a story that Bikel had wanted to include in "The Case for Innocence," but she ran out of air time. A story turning on a disputed confession and mistaken identity from a police sketch by a woman named Chiquita Lowe, who later recanted and identified someone else after Smith was already on death row .

Where he stayed ... and stayed ... and stayed, his life "passing in aging mug shots," says Lyman as prison photographs of Smith's gradual atrophy through the years appear on the screen.

Just as several jurors in the Little Rascals case confided to Bikel they bowed to the majority's will and voted "guilty" despite having strong doubts, Lowe says she had her own reservations when naming Smith at his trial. But she caved in to pressure from family, friends and police, she says, before later identifying another African American, Eddie Lee Mosley, as the killer.

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