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From Death Row to Freedom: The Struggle for Racial Justice in the Pitts-Lee Case

Book Reviews

From Death Row to FreedomMartin Luther King, Jr.’s declaration — that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice — comes to mind when reading Judge Phillip A. Hubbart’s opus From Death Row to Freedom: The Struggle for Racial Justice in the Pitts-Lee Case. In this case, the arc was both excruciatingly long for two wrongly accused and convicted men, and admirably bent by a group of lawyers, politicians, and journalists who refused to give up in the pursuit of justice.

Hubbart tells the story of Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee, two Black men accused of murder in 1963 who received the death penalty after a rushed trial colored by the absolute mistreatment of both defendants in the hands of police, prosecutors, and even their own assigned defense attorney. The grim facts — confessions beat out of brutalized defendants, prosecutors and judges ignoring exculpatory evidence including an admission from the true perpetrator, inconsistent testimony, and an entirely biased jury — serve to remind of the dangers of our system without the zealous advocacy of those like Hubbart and his team.

Hubbart shares the story of their case before his involvement, when he was appointed to their appeal. The details of the extreme, racist treatment of these individuals will be a shock to even the most cynical member of the legal community. The book is particularly fascinating as it covers the second trial in the case, where Hubbart’s team had the task of trying an unwinnable jury trial for the sake of appeal.

The book masterfully details the minutia of this case as it traveled from accusation to first conviction to appeal to ultimately the exoneration of both men through the court of public opinion and extrajudicial means. While Hubbart captures how extraordinary the misconduct was in this specific case, the book acknowledges the ways in which this case was horrifically ordinary for many black men caught in the justice system. Hubbart delivers a crippling blow to the reader as he points out that Pitts & Lee were convicted as Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Writes Hubbart writes, “One of the great things about being a lawyer is that you don’t have to sit on the sidelines and watch bad things happen to other people” (138). This mentality is what prevailed in Pitts’ and Lee’s case, and what makes the book so inspiring. The story is both a celebration of justice achieved, and a call to action for those of us who can prevent such misconduct and injustice moving forward.

Judge Hubbart received his J.D. from Duke and his L.L.M from Georgetown. This book covers an early moment in his career, which was followed by service as the elected public defender of Miami-Dade County, where he mentored an entire generation of outstanding lawyers. He then went on to serve for two decades as a highly respected judge, then chief judge, of the Third District Court of Appeal.

Lex Kirkwood is a member of The Florida Bar.