Black Florida man wrongly convicted of murder in 1960s dies at age 83

Wilbert Lee spent 12 years in prison despite real killer's confession

By Sanela Sabovic - Reporter

One of the men who was wrongly convicted of murdering two white gas station attendants in the 1960s has died.

It's a case that forced race relations in Florida to the forefront. 

Wilbert Lee and Freddie Pitts spent more than 10 years behind bars for a crime they did not commit.

Local 10 News reporter Sanela Sabovic spoke with Lee's sister about the heartbreak from that conviction that he carried with him until his last moments.

"Imagine someone's on death row for a murder they did not commit. It was very hard and very difficult for my brother to get over this," Linda Smith said.  

Smith said her brother died a broken man. If his name sounds familiar, that's because Smith's brother, along with Pitts, was a part of a case that gripped the state of Florida for decades.

Both black men were wrongly convicted of murdering two white gas station attendants in northern Florida in 1963. They sat on death row despite another man admitting to the crimes. 

"That's a slap in the face," Lee previously said in an interview. "We've spent 9 1/2 years under the sentence of death." 

Pitts and Lee were eventually released from Florida state prison in 1975, pardoned by then Gov. Reubin Askew. 

Both men would then spend the next 23 years seeking justice.

In 1998, they received $500,000 from the Florida Legislature. Their case was the first time the state ever gave restitution for a wrongful death sentence. 

What Lee's sister takes issue with is that there never was a formal apology from the state for a wrongful conviction that scarred and shaped her brother's life.

"Every day was a challenge for him," Smith said. "He coped, but he never, ever got over this. How could you when you are on death row and you are being beaten? They are refusing to allow him to have water. They were refusing to feed him. He was called the N-word. He was fearful for his life." 

Lee died of a heart attack last week at the age of 83. Smith wants his name to be remembered and his death to not be in vain.

"I want Wilbert Lee to be remembered as a true, true innocent hero," Smith said.  

Lee will be laid to rest Nov. 3 in Miami. 

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