Freddie Lee Pitts (1937-2020)
DNA used in exoneration? No
Reasons for wrongful conviction:
Perjury or false accusation
Freddie Lee Pitts and Wilbert Lee, both African-American, were convicted and sentenced to death for the 1963 murder of two white gas station attendants in Florida, despite a complete lack of physical evidence. Prosecutors used confessions that were extracted through beatings, testimony of a suspicious eyewitness, and polygraph tests taken under extreme duress to win their case. A few weeks after Freddie and Wilbert were sentenced to death, a white man sentenced to life for another homicide admitted to the killings.
Despite learning of this confession, the local sheriff ignored it. A polygraph examiner who had heard the white man confess took the matter to the press, and soon a new trial was ordered. But astonishingly, Freddie and Wilbert were again convicted. After the second conviction, the alleged eyewitness recanted her testimony, and the state Attorney General admitted that the State had unlawfully suppressed evidence.
The defendants were released in 1975, when they received a full pardon from Governor Reubin Askew, who stated he was “sufficiently convinced that they were innocent.” In 1998, after a 20-year wait, Freddie was awarded $500,000 by the Florida Legislature. This marked the first time that the legislature ordered restitution for a person wrongly sentenced to death.
Freddie Lee Pitts passed away on September 3, 2020. He was the first Board Chair at Witness to Innocence and one of the first exonerees from Florida's death row. He devoted his life to educating the public about the death penalty with his razor-sharp knowledge of the legal system that put him on death row.
Freddie's case inspired author Gene Miller to write Invitation to a Lynching, which won him a Pulitzer Prize and helped free Freddie and his co-defendant Wilbert Lee.
Here at Witness to Innocence, we like to frequently cite one of Freddie's most moving quotes, as we believe it summarizes our beliefs regarding wrongful convictions and the death penalty: “You can release an innocent man from prison, but you can’t release him from the grave.”