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DEATH ROW STORIES
Death Row Stories: The Murder of Teresa McAbee
Aired March 30, 2014 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SUSAN SARANDON, NARRATOR: On this episode of DEATH ROW STORIES.
In a tiny Florida town, an 11-year-old girl is found raped and murdered.
STEVE HURM, TRIAL PROSECUTOR: That little girl died in the dark, alone with a monster.
SARANDON: And the investigation leads the police back to one of their own.
ROCKY HARRIS, FORMER INVESTIGATOR, LAKE CITY SHERIFF DEPARTMENT: Of course we didn't want to believe a police officer would do this.
JAMES DUCKETT, DEATH ROW INMATE: I had always wanted to get in law enforcement and here I am going to death row.
SARANDON: But a Miami detective becomes convinced the ex-cop is innocent.
MARSHALL FRANK, FORMER HOMICIDE CHIEF, MIAMI-DADE POLICE DEPARTMENT: There was really no hard evidence.
BETH WELLS, APPELLATE ATTORNEY: We have an innocent guy here. This is crazy.
SARANDON: And the case takes an unexpected turn.
EDNA BUCHANAN, FORMER CRIME REPORTER: You'll never say it can't be because often it is.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL BRADY, FORMER MASCOTTE CHIEF OF POLICE: There's a body in the water.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was butchered and murdered.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many people proclaim their innocence.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In this case there are a number of things that stink.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This man is remorseless.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He needs to pay for it with his life. GLORIA KILLIAN, FORMER DEATH ROW INMATE: The electric chair flashed in front of my eyes.
DAVID MILLS, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Get a conviction at all costs. Let the truth fall where it may.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BRADY: I was the chief of police for the city of Mascotte. Mascotte, Florida, a small, poor community, about 1700 residents. Maybe a quarter of them are seasonal migrant workers.
I was working the school that morning and I got contacted by a resident. He said I went down to the lake to go fishing and he said, I'm not sure but I think there's a body in the water. He said, a little girl. The body was floating face down. The feet were touching the shoreline and her arms are spread out.
SARANDON: Police identified the victim as 11-year-old Teresa McAbee. She had last been seen the previous evening around 10:00 p.m. at a Circle K Convenience Store located just 400 feet from her home.
DOROTHY MCABEE, VICTIM'S MOTHER: She told me she had to do her math homework and she didn't have a pencil. And I remember I kept telling her no, because I didn't want her to leave the house. And she said mom, I won't take but a couple minutes. So I finally said yes. And she left.
SARANDON: One of the last people to see Teresa alive was local police officer, James Duckett.
DUCKETT: I said listen, I said, it's getting close to 10:30. I said I want you to go straight home.
SARANDON: Duckett reminded Teresa of the 10:30 p.m. curfew for minors.
MCABEE: When she didn't come back, I walked to the store to make sure that she was still there and she wasn't.
DUCKETT: She got out of the store. Walked down in front of the ice machines again and turned the corner. I assumed headed home.
MCABEE: And I kept -- just go walked places and I couldn't find her.
SARANDON: When Teresa's body was discovered the following morning, the tiny Mascotte Police Department turned to the county sheriff's office for help.
Investigator Rocky Harris responded to the call.
HARRIS: I got there. The child was dead in the water. And I swam out and got her and brought her in. How do you describe a child? It was a -- it was a little tough.
SARANDON: Investigators summoned the rookie officer Duckett to the crime scene to get more details about Duckett's encounter with the victim the night before.
HARRIS: At the crime scene, there were some tire tracks. It had rained a little bit in that area and so the tracks were real good. And then later on Officer Duckett arrived. We looked over at Duckett's patrol car. The tires matched. At that point we had his car impounded and we found the child's fingerprints all over the car. The hood of the car. Of course we didn't want to believe a police officer would do this.
SARANDON: Teresa McAbee's autopsy revealed that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. A pubic hair was also found in her underwear.
HARRIS: We got a court order and took samples from Duckett. And that's when it came back for positive identification.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A policeman who may have been the last person to see 11-year-old Teresa McAbee alive is under investigation himself tonight.
MCABEE: I just couldn't believe it. He was supposed to serve and protect the community. She probably thought, well, he's a police officer. He'll take me home. But that never happened.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Residents are outraged.
EDNA ROGERS, RESIDENT: You teach your children to go to a police officer if they're, you know, in trouble or need help.
SARANDON: Despite the community uproar, Police Chief Mike Brady who had hired and mentored Duckett, held fast in his belief that investigators were focusing on the wrong man.
BRADY: My confidence in him hadn't been shaken. I was of the opinion that the truth is going to come out. He is going to be exonerated as a suspect. We're going on get to business and find out who murdered this child.
DUCKETT: Last time I seen her she turned the corner and was headed home.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: James, do you want to know something?
DUCKETT: Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're not telling me the truth.
DUCKETT: Yes, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, you're not, James.
SARANDON: James Duckett was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
Duckett's trial began on April 25th, 1988. Assistant State Attorney Steve Hurm prosecuted the case and sought the death penalty. HURM: That little girl died in the most traumatic, terrifying way, in the dark, alone with a monster.
SARANDON: Hurm called an eyewitness, 17-year-old Gwen Gurley, to the stand. Gurley testified that on the night of the murder she saw Teresa talking to Duckett. Moments later she saw Duckett leave the scene with a small person in his police car.
HURM: Were you able to see the car the exact time as it turned the corner?
GWEN GURLEY, FORMER INMATE: Yes.
HURM: Were you able to see inside the car?
HURM: How many people did you see?
SARANDON: Prosecutors also called three women who each testified that Officer Duckett had made sexual advances while he was on duty.
HURM: They were all accosted by Duckett when he was on duty, in uniform, in his patrol car, on the midnight shift, and taken by him to wooded areas.
SARANDON: It took jury less than 90 minutes to find James Duckett guilty of capital sexual battery and murder in the first-degree. On June 30th, 1988, James Duckett was sentenced to death.
HARRIS: When they sentenced him, it was probably one of the best days of my life. Because I took a bad cop out who killed a child.
SARANDON: Fourteen years after Duckett's conviction, a retired Miami Police homicide detective named Marsha Frank began doing research for a crime novel he wanted to write.
FRANK: When I retired I moved to a little town in North Carolina called Maggie Valley. And it's in the mountains. It's beautiful. I had an idea for a novel in which the protagonist ends up on death row. So being an investigator, I wanted to talk to a death row inmate. I got 15 names. I wrote each of them a letter. Eight of them wanted to tell me how they weren't guilty. And one of the responses was from James Duckett. And he seemed logical. He seemed articulate.
Contrary to what I promised myself I wouldn't do, I said I'm going to look more into this. I'm not a bleeding heart. I don't fall for people saying they're not guilty because I've heard it over my career. I put a lot of people in jail for murder. I don't think I was ever wrong. So I pull out all the files, read every report. When I started assembling all the evidence, it's like a mosaic. You get a little piece of this tile, a little piece of that tile, little piece of that tile, you put them all together, you get a picture.
And the picture was innocent.
SARANDON: Former police officer James Duckett was on death row for the murder of 11-year-old Teresa McAbee when retired Miami homicide detective Marshall Frank began corresponding with him.
FRANK: I just wanted to see if this needed to be investigated further. If there is an innocent man on death row. I had no problem with punishing people for doing a terrible crime. I put many away myself. But this guy may have been railroaded.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Watch out, you don't trip. Have a seat right here, Duckett. Don't stand up until we tell you to. All right?
DUCKETT: Yes, yes, I got you.
I'm James Aren Duckett and we are currently at Florida State Prison. I am sentenced to death so I am currently on death row. I've been here since June 30th, 1988.
FRANK: I wrote Duckett a letter. Tell me more about this situation. Well, I got a big letter back.
DUCKETT: He reached out to me. He said I'm a retired detective from the Miami Police Department. He said I want to help you out. I want to see what your case is. I told him, that I walked in this building scared to death as a young man. Never been inside a prison. Never been in any trouble before. And here I am going to death row.
I had a career going. I had a beautiful wife, I had two young sons, I had a future that I was moving towards and all of that was taken for no reason except to satisfy somebody's idea that I was the one that did this.
SARANDON: Frank decided to put the novel he was writing on hold and get more involved in Duckett's case.
FRANK: So I go to Florida and I pored over the reports and I began to see flaws. This young woman, her name was Gwen, she said she saw the child get into the police car.
SARANDON: Marshall discovered there was more to Gwen Gurley, the only eyewitness, than jurors had been led to believe.
FRANK: I just wanted to know more about how that came about that she would testify against Duckett.
BRADY: Gwen Gurley was always getting involved in disturbances and all of a sudden she becomes a star witness with the worst credibility you could ever have.
GURLEY: In '87, I was 16, I was a typical teenager, I would say. Except I was getting in a little bit of trouble.
HURM: Gwen Gurley was in the Leesburg City Jail. GURLEY: Three counts of grand theft.
HURM: And the news report of Duckett's indictment came on the news.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: James Duckett in connection with the killing --
HURM: And she saw that. And she called a female corrections officer over. And told her, I was there. I know something about that case.
GURLEY: The Sheriff's Department of Lake County come talk to me.
FRANK: The inference was, we can give you a break if you saw something that we should know about. Hint, hint.
SARANDON: Gwen testified against Duckett and was let out of jail having served less than six months of a two-year sentence. But a year after James Duckett was sentenced to death Gurley recanted her original testimony and said she never actually saw Officer Duckett with Teresa McAbee.
In a sworn affidavit, Gurley claimed that she had been induced into testifying against Duckett by investigator by Rocky Harris.
GURLEY: Rocky Harris took me in and out of the jail. They asked a lot of questions, a lot of questions.
HARRIS: The best I recall, I never offered her any deal whatsoever.
SARANDON: After learning that Gwen Gurley had recanted her testimony, Marshall Frank also discovered that Duckett had an alibi for the time of Teresa's murder. An alibi the jury had never heard.
FRANK: He told me he couldn't have been there at the murder because he got a call from the Jiffy Stop, another convenience store in a different part of town. So he went over there around the time the little girl was being murdered. He jotted everything down in his little spiral log book. Time, activity, traffic stop.
DUCKETT: The notebook has her information in it. That I wrote down that night.
FRANK: I said did that log sheet get introduced into trial? He said no. He said, I don't know what happened to it. It was confiscated from him by the police.
DUCKETT: They took notebook when they impounded the patrol car. The notebook got Teresa's information that I wrote down at 10:30 that night. And then at 11:00, I was at the Jiffy Store. How can you be assaulting Teresa and be at well-bring check at the same time? They could have went and spoke to the clerk and confirmed that.
FRANK: This alibi would be very good. And there was no reason for his attorney not to produce this in court as a defense.
SARANDON: But if Duckett was innocent, how could Frank explain the pubic hair found in Teresa McAbee's underwear? Pubic hair that an FBI forensic analyst said matched James Duckett's.
HURM: Mike Malone was a longtime FBI expert. And Malone took a look at it and he said it was indistinguishable from Duckett's hair.
SARANDON: Marshall Frank wasn't so sure. And what he soon learned about FBI expert Mike Malone would further convince him that Duckett was innocent.
FRANK: Overall, it stunk to high heaven. The whole thing stunk.
SARANDON: Retired homicide detective Marshall Frank was investigating James Duckett's case on death row. At the same time, Beth Wells, an appeals attorney from Atlanta, was also fighting to prove Duckett's innocence.
WELLS: I represent Jim Duckett. I have been representing him since 1990. When I started, it was a bloody time period in Florida. There were seven execution warrants the day I was hired. We have seven active warrants. That means seven men were going to be executed and Jim was one of my very first clients.
DUCKETT: If there is ever a godsend person, I believe Beth is mine. She's never gave up on me.
WELLS: I started investigating his case. And every time I would look into something, I would discover, well, hang on. That's not as they said it was at trial. That doesn't flush out. And then you realize, wait, we have an innocent guy here.
SARANDON: The prosecution's key evidence against James Duckett was pubic hair that had been found in Teresa McAbee's underwear. But neither Beth Wells nor Marshall Frank were buying it.
FRANK: Duckett was accused of sexually assaulting her. One of the things that troubled me a lot is that the prosecution was saying that the pubic hair inside her panties was from the killer, but it wasn't uncommon for Teresa to put her mommy's panties on. So maybe that public hair was already there in those panties.
SARANDON: Records also show that the prosecution took unusual steps to connect the pubic hair to Duckett.
BRADY: The sheriff's department with the hair analysis, shopping it around. FDLE, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, had told them, nope, ain't nothing there.
DUCKETT: FDLE said that that hair was probably not mine, 28 out of 30 characteristics didn't match the hair.
BRADY: I post on, nope, ain't nothing there.
WELLS: They said we can't do it because there is no root. The state of DNA testing at the time was we can't do anything with it.
HURM: So we went to the FBI because there is a Mac daddy of labs. And we asked them to take a look at it.
WELLS: Mike Malone is the FBI expert. He tested it and he comes up and says oh, yes, this is Jim Duckett's hair. Microscopically consistent. So you have the preeminent investigative agency in the country saying it's Jim Duckett's hair. That's powerful evidence to a jury. There is no question they're going to believe that.
SARANDON: With advance DNA science not yet available at the time of the trial the prosecution relied on inexact hair testing methods yielding results that would not be accepted in a court of law today.
FRANK: I consulted a couple of forensic experts myself who I knew there was no way anybody, FBI, no matter where they're from could say that pubic hair belonged to James Duckett. There's no way they could say that.
SARANDON: As it turned out, the FBI's hair and fiber analyst, Mike Malone, had a long history of controversial findings.
WELLS: Over the years Mike Malone in many cases has given evidence that through DNA testing we've discovered is just simply incorrect. Recently, the FBI hired an independent expert to reexamine Mike Malone's testimony in all these cases because they're concerned that he is exaggerating.
FRANK: For the state to even use the guy was like, shame on them. Shame on them. A jury should have known that that hair could not be identified to anybody.
SARANDON: But Duckett's defense attorney, Jack Edmond, had not questioned the pubic hair results at trial. He also neglected to gather evidence of Duckett's alibi and to depose some key witnesses.
DUCKETT: Jack assured me that he would handle this. Don't worry about it. Consider the short vacation. He said we'll get this straightened out.
BRADY: I kept telling Jack, I think you're overconfident and taking too much for granted. You think they don't have that strong of a case. But you're not trying to convince me. You're trying to convince 12 other people.
SARANDON: In order to retain Jack Edmond, James Duckett's family had taken out a mortgage on their home, putting their hope in one of the most renowned defense attorneys in Florida.
FRANK: For everything I could find, this attorney did a horrendous job in defending James Duckett. Defense attorney 101. You take depositions from the state's witnesses. The key witnesses anyway. This was never done.
SARANDON: In 1997, Beth Wells appealed Duckett's case to the Lake County Circuit Court in Florida. Hoping to get a new trial for Duckett, Wells called Jack Edmond to the stand to account for his poor performance. Edmond told the court, I blew it. DUCKETT: I trusted Jack Edmond. I trusted that 25 years of experience as a criminal attorney, that he would correct this and I was wrong.
SARANDON: Beth Wells also offered alternate suspects for the crime starting with ex-cons and migrant workers who stayed at the McAbee home.
WELLS: Teresa's uncle testified that she had complained to him that there was one man in particular who stayed over there with her mother who would try to pull her down on the couch and touch her inappropriately. And for that reason she had asked to stay at the uncle's house. He's never been examined by the police. They didn't take hair follicles from him. He left town soon after. We don't know where he is. We don't have a full name for him.
BRADY: There were always a lot of people around the home that didn't live there. Like a little cavalry. There was always more guys than girls. There's a lot of stuff to raise suspicion about, you know, you have an 11-year-old female child in the house.
WELLS: I think the person who was harassing Teresa at home killed her, dressed her and took her and dumped her in the lake. But once they honed in on Jim Duckett, which was very early in the case, they stopped looking at other people, and that's not good police work.
SARANDON: Wells also called Gwen Gurley to testify. Gurley, the only eyewitness who placed Teresa in Duckett's patrol car, had recanted her original testimony.
DUCKETT: If they used Gwen Gurley as a key witness to put me here and if she is no longer telling their lies, that should count for something.
WELLS: I can remember when we talked to Gwen. This is great stuff. She's recanted. She's the only person that saw the victim in the car. So we think this is going to get us a new trial.
SARANDON: Nine years after James Duckett had been sentenced to death, the key witness in his prosecution, Gwen Gurley was prepared to testify that she had lied at his original trial. But the presiding judge put a stop to Gwen's admission, warning her of perjury charges if she changed her testimony.
GURLEY: Judge Lockett told me if I perjured myself that I could be sentenced to the maximum of I think it was seven years for each perjury. So I pled the Fifth.
WELLS: We asked the judge to grant immunity and he just didn't do it.
DUCKETT: How can you kill somebody, how can you execute somebody and you've got a state's key witness that wants to tell the truth and yet because it is not what the state wants, they're going on threaten her with perjury and send her back to prison? What kind of system is that?
SARANDON: While Duckett's appeal was severely weakened without Gurley's recanted testimony, Beth Wells was still able to attack the prosecution's case starting with the tire tracks found near Teresa's body.
FRANK: That little dirt road had the tire tracks on it, which was a pretty good catch by the detective. And so they did the right thing and preserved the tracks. They did a mold of it and everything else. And sure enough those tracks had the same tire pattern, tread pattern that the police cars had. But just because someone had a tire tread of the same basic pattern doesn't mean it was that car.
SARANDON: Duckett's former boss, Police Chief Michael Brady, was also suspicious of the tire track evidence. Soon after Lake County investigators left the crime scene he made a discovery that convinced him the evidence was flawed.
BRADY: We went out and could find no evidence that the investigators had lifted any kind of tire imprint from the surrounding area. We walked back to the car. That's when Smith said, wait a minute, here's something over here. And we found residue from a Plaster of Paris and I realized the investigators looked at that tire imprint from outside the roped off crime scene and where we had been driving the car all day long. And nobody is ever going on convince me of anything different.
SARANDON: Investigators also conducted soil comparison tests between Duckett's patrol car and samples from the crime scene.
WELLS: They did soil tests. No matches. There's not one bit of soil that's consistent with coming from the crime scene and it being on the police car.
SARANDON: But after presenting the tire track evidence at the appeal, Beth would still have to contend with the finger prints on Duckett's police car.
HARRIS: When we had his car impounded, the first thing that came back was the child's finger prints on the hood of the car. That in itself told the tale. You see how her little hands kept getting further and further back and his are right in there between them.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your vehicle was processed. Do you know whose finger prints these are there?
DUCKETT: No, sir.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Teresa was sitting on the hood of your car.
DUCKETT: No, sir. She had not been on the hood of my car. Nobody was sitting down at any time on the hood of my car.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you telling us that's not her fingerprints?
DUCKETT: Like I said, she was not on the hood of my vehicle. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: These are all identified with Teresa McAbee. She was here, here, and keeps moving up. And finally there's one completely turned sideways in this position here.
SARANDON: Mike Brady had a separate notion of what happened that night.
BRADY: We later developed a theory that she could have jumped up on the car which would have been hot on an engine already having run for several hours so she might have jumped back off of it, and that would leave her fingerprints there. His could have been on there from using it as a desk. I mean, they had our theory. We had our theories.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The girl is sitting on your vehicle in a laid back position.
DUCKETT: but I'm telling you the honest to god truthful I did not do anything to that girl.
HURM: I'll be honest with you. Had James Duckett said yes, she sat on the hood of my car. You know, that's why the finger prints are there. And if he had said, when he was looking for her, I drove down past that pump house and went through there after the rain. That would have explained away the tire tracks. And we might never have focused in on him as a suspect.
SARANDON: After Beth Wells finished making her case for a new trial, Judge Lockett denied the appeal. In 2003 Marshall Frank was ready to go to bat for James Duckett and called Beth Wells to offer his help.
FRANK: Beth was a little dubious about me. She was dubious about anybody would be in the law enforcement side. Didn't know for sure that I was really sincere in my probe.
WELLS: Marshall Frank contacted Jim and I remember initially, I was like, whoa, whoa, you know, I know nothing about this guy. I have no reason to trust him. I don't know where he's coming from. But from Jim's point of view, maybe this will be the person who is able to get somebody to listen.
SARANDON: With the case at a dead end and Duckett headed towards execution, Marshall Frank had an idea.
DUCKETT: He said I've got a friend that used to work for the "Miami Herald." And I had read Edna Buchanan's stories before over the years. And so I knew who the name was. And so I felt excited.
SARANDON: Edna Buchanan was a Pulitzer Prize winning crime reporter for the "Miami Herald."
FRANK: Edna was an outstanding reporter, one of the best I've ever known. I wanted to tell her what the story was that I had for James Duckett.
BUCHANAN: Marshall Frank kept calling me. I had known him. He had been a source of mine over the years and he said he had found this case where he is convinced that the man on death row was innocent. I was dubious because if the wrong person is convicted it is usually someone who is poor, minorities, not a white cop. And I kept saying, how sure are you? And he was saying, 115 percent sure this guy is innocent.
So it didn't seem likely but so many cases in Miami and in South Florida and in the whole state, you know, sometimes it's like the "Twilight Zone" and Rod Sterling is the governor.
You never just say, it can't be because often it is.
SARANDON: With Frank's help in 2003, Edna Buchanan wrote three front page stories for the "Miami Herald" about Duckett's possible innocence.
DUCKETT: She started writing the stories and I started getting all these media requests. I mean, from TVs and newspapers and "48 Hours" and "Primetime Live." I mean, they were just flooding in my cell.
SARANDON: As publicity grew around Duckett's case, Marshall Frank was finally able to convince Beth Wells to show him a key piece of evidence.
FRANK: I wanted to see a copy of the note pad that Duckett had told me about.
SARANDON: According to the defense, Duckett's police notebook from the night of the murder contained his alibi.
WELLS: The notebook should have been in the trial record. And it is not. The notebook should have been in the trial record. And it is not. The jury never sees it. And when you see it, when you look at it, you go, there's evidence right here.
FRANK: Beth faxed me companies of those pages. And I looked at them. And that began to give me some doubts. I could be wrong all along.
SARANDON: Marshall Frank was working to prove James Duckett's innocence. But once he gained access to Duckett's police notebook from the night of the crime, one particular entry aroused Frank's suspicions.
FRANK: There were certain notations that he's logged at certain times at night, traffic stops and all the little things that he -- you know, that he did. Everything was in normal order. But the Jiffy Stop check that he talked about wasn't in the same order as all the other loggings. And I thought that was odd. The way it was written. It looks as though it was put in there to establish the alibi. I said oh-oh, all right, well, I'm still pursuing this because I believe the guy is innocent.
SARANDON: With the notebook entry raising his suspicions, Frank decided to look more closely at evidence he had previously discounted including the testimony of three young women who said Duckett had made sexual advances towards them.
HURM: They all looked about the same age. They had similar physical appearance. They were slight of build, about the same length hair. They were all accosted by Duckett and taken by him to wooded areas.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right. So you guys were sitting in a car. Did he want you to touch him with your hands or did he want you to touch him with your mouth?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Both. I touched him with both.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know the difference between circumcised and uncircumcised?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was circumcised.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He seen that I was crying, and he asked me, did I want to talk. And I said no. He told me to get in the car and we'd go riding around. And so I got in the police car and we went riding around a little while.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was crying because I was scared and he put his arms around me and he touched my boobs and I get real upset and I was begging and pleading with him. I knew I was scared that night. Really, really scared. And I believe that he could have done something like that. Especially with somebody that young.
SARANDON: For nearly a year Frank had only corresponded with Duckett or spoken to him on the phone. Now for the first time, they decided to meet face to face.
FRANK: I was very apprehensive meeting a guy on death row. At that time he had been on death row already for about 16 years. That's a long time to be cooped up in a walk-in closet. But when I walked into the room it was almost like seeing some old friend. He was so happy to see me.
DUCKETT: I believe it was on Father's Day he showed up here. And I thought we had a good conversation. You know, we ate a hamburger, had a soda, we talked about the case, and this and that.
FRANK: I asked him about the three girls and he said that never happened. It was all a lie. Well, I don't know those girls but I didn't believe him when he said that because if one said it, maybe it's a lie. But all three independently of each other it's not likely that they were all lying. But that didn't prove anything about murder. So I finally come to the big question, the big question was this.
When you were questioned the night after the murder, you knew then that you had written down on a note pad that you had gone to Jiffy Stop the time of the murder. And you're being questioned by detectives and you had an alibi. Did you tell them about it? He said no. I said why not? And then he said, you know, I don't know why I didn't tell them that.
DUCKETT: I didn't even think about it, you know, as far as being an alibi or -- I never even thought about the notebook during trial. Never even dawned on me.
FRANK: The blood seeped from my head. I felt cold. Someone is questioning you and you have an alibi for where you were at the time of a murder somewhere and you don't tell the authorities that alibi. That's for a reason. And the reason has got to be, that there is no alibi. I knew then this was a guilty man. I knew then.
BUCHANAN: Marshall Frank called and said something like, whoops, you'll never guess what happened. And I had the sinking feeling and he said, I think he's guilty.
And I said what? I thought this seasoned homicide detective was reliable and trustworthy.
FRANK: I was wrong. And I crawled under the bottom of a mole hill so I could hide from the rest of the world. I was a little bit embarrassed.
BUCHANAN: I loved the "Herald." My entire career. I never had a retraction. I was always credible. And to have the last story that I wrote for "The Herald," he said because Marshall Frank was careless with my reputation, with his reputation. So I got burned on that one.
FRANK: What can I say? You know? It was a noble purpose.
WELLS: One day Marshall Frank calls up, he's guilty. The next thing we know, there is a big article in the "Miami Herald." And I was angry. I was very angry. I was angry at him, I was angry at the reporter. This is a man's life and you're printing this stuff and it's dangerous. Because now everybody reads the "Miami Herald." The courts are reading it. Everybody reads it.
BUCHANAN: People always want to believe that, you know, somebody is innocent but it is really dangerous years after the fact to get a new trial for somebody, you know, for some legal flaw like maybe his lawyer didn't work hard enough or maybe some witness was unreliable.
SARANDON: In fact Gwen Gurley who recanted her original testimony against Duckett now claims she was coerced into recanting by an investigator working for the Duckett family.
GURLEY: This man was at my house. If I was hanging up clothes, he was behind the clothesline. He was always around. He was -- he never let my life at peace. So I just told him what he wanted to hear to leave me alone. What he told me happened, I said OK, it happened. And the only reason I even agreed to do this interview was just to let it on record, to let it be known that the last time I saw Teresa McAbee, she was in James Duckett's police car. That's the last time I saw that little girl. The next time I heard about her, she was dead. SARANDON: Earlier in his investigation, Marshall Frank was urged to meet with detectives from a sheriff's office in a neighboring county. Until now, Frank hadn't thought it was important to do so.
FRANK: Someone told me that James Duckett was being investigated by another agency. So I go to the Poke County Sheriff's Department and talk to the detectives. They allowed me to read the significant reports and the more they talk to me, the more I began to think, oh, dear, he may have killed another child.
SARANDON: Marshall Frank had become convinced that James Duckett was in fact guilty of murdering Teresa McAbee. And he soon learned that Duckett was the prime suspect in the murder of another girl named Jennifer Weldon.
FRANK: The evidence that I learned about the Jennifer Weldon murder was stronger than the evidence in the Teresa McAbee murder.
SARANDON: While awaiting trial, Duckett had taken a job at a local phosphate pit located near the same road where 14-year-old Jennifer Weldon was last seen.
DUCKETT: A young girl apparently had been walking home or hitchhiking or something and had disappeared, and they found her a week or two later. They came up there and attempted to question me on that.
HURM: This girl had been in the carnival that was on a road Duckett used to take.
FRANK: Jennifer Weldon was 14 then, was last seen walking along State Road 98 in the evening time. The Lake County Sheriff's Department talked to the supervisors at the phosphorous plant. He said Duckett showed up late the night Jennifer Weldon had disappeared. And when he did show up at work, he was quite disheveled and seemed to be upset and he wasn't himself.
Jennifer Weldon was carrying a lime green bag with a stuffed animal inside the night she disappeared.
HURM: I got a call one day from Duckett's wife out of the blue, and she said, Mr. Hurm, I think Jimmy may have had something to do with that case. I said, why do you say that? She said, because I remember him coming home with a bag with a little stuffed animal, and she said the reason I remember it is I was mad at him because we had two boys, and I said, why wouldn't you bring two toys? Because you know they'll fight over it. Well, I get goose bumps thinking about this.
SARANDON: Police never charge Duckett with the Weldon murder, but they have said they will pursue Duckett for the crime if he is ever let off death row for the McAbee murder, a possibility Beth Wells is counting on.
WELLS: They're presently reviewing Jim's case, and I'm 100 percent confident that when they evaluate this evidence, they're going to say, you know what? We got it wrong. We have to give this guy a new trial.
FRANK: I mean, look, the hard evidence was tire tracks which can't be identified to his car. A pubic hair, nothing that he can even say that the pubic hair belonged to James Duckett. Gwen, her truthfulness is in doubt.
WELLS: We've been doing this a long time. Hopefully we won't be doing it much longer, you know. He'll be out and not needing an attorney.
SARANDON: In the meantime, Duckett's appeals had left Teresa's mother in limbo.
MCABEE: I just want justice for my daughter. That's what I want. Twenty-six years. I'm tired of it. I don't think I'll ever have closure. Because he is not going to admit it.
DUCKETT: These years looking back, I should have drove Teresa home, walked her up to the door, I should have handed her over to them. Absolutely. And that was my fault. I didn't kill your daughter, though. No. I didn't.
BRADY: Eleven-year-old was killed. That's tragic. Murder should never have happened. But you don't have a smoking gun. You don't have what a lot of people demand in a case.
FRANK: From a legal point of view, he really should never have been convicted. It's a good thing that he was because there would probably be other dead kids out there.
HURM: You know, I'm not a fry 'em all, fry 'em sooner, you know, that sort of thing. I feel the weight of the state deciding to take someone's life. But if the death penalty is appropriate for any case, it's appropriate for this case because what he did to Teresa McAbee.
BUCHANAN: God forbid if he got out death row and was a serial sex killer, how many more victims would there be before they caught Duckett again?
DUCKETT: Grant a new trial. I'm not asking to walk out the door. Grant me a new trial. Let's put everything on the table and do it right and see what happens.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ready?
DUCKETT: All right. Thank you. Y'all take care.