By Verna Wood
Holdenville, OK – “You are hereby sentenced to spend the rest of your life in prison!” Most of us cannot imagine what it would feel like to have those words spoken to us. And we certainly can’t fathom hearing them if we had not committed a crime. Yet that is exactly what happened to 23-year old Reno Francis in September 1970, nearly 37 years ago. Only 17 days after Reno’s arrest he arrived at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester – a convicted murderer facing a lifetime behind bars. As of this date Reno is still in prison regardless of the fact that he is completely innocent of the murder of which he was convicted.
Do you remember what you were doing in 1970, if you were even alive at that time? Maybe a few reminders of the goings on of the day will refresh your memory. In 1970 the first episode of “All My Children” was broadcast on ABC, Apollo 13 was launched toward the moon, the Ford Pinto was introduced, Garry Trudeau’s comic strip, “Doonesbury” made its debut, a fatal airplane crash in Wayne County, West Virginia claimed the lives of the players and coaches of the Marshall University football team, the United States Environmental Protection Agency began operation, Queen Latifah, Chris O’Donnell, Matt Damon, and Mariah Carey were born, “Airport”, “MASH”, “Patton”, and “Love Story” were box office hits, and the Viet Nam war raged on. That’s been quite a while hasn’t it?
Many people have been proven innocent in the past several years, mostly through DNA evidence. Some of the more famous ones from Oklahoma have served from 4 to 20 years in prison due to false convictions. Even 4 years is a very long time for an innocent person to spend behind bars and 11, 13, and certainly 20 (as were served by others who have been cleared) are extremely long. So why is Reno still in prison after 37 years? 37 years is a lifetime! Why does no one seem to care that this innocent man is still locked away from the world and from his family after spending a lifetime in prison for a crime he did not commit?
A Texas man, Clyde Thompson, (the subject of the book, “The Meanest Man in Texas”) who received three life sentences for murders for which he was actually responsible only spent 28 years in prison before receiving a pardon. Mr. Thompson had changed his life and became a minister who did much good upon his release. Why is Reno not worthy of the same opportunity when he has already spent 9 years longer in prison than Mr. Thompson and he did not commit the crime to begin with?
What is wrong with the Oklahoma justice system that it is so anxious to put a warm body in prison regardless of guilt or innocence and then refuses to give him a second chance? Out of sight, out of mind – no one remembers Reno except for his family. But we at the US Observer Oklahoma intend to change that. We want to make “Reno Francis” a household word. We intend to remind everyone what was done to this man and that to date no attempt has been made to rectify this horrendous wrong.
Not only has Reno suffered by losing his freedom for so many years and by being kept from his family but he has suffered much at the hands of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. He actually spent 16 months while at Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester in solitary confinement on a concrete floor with no mattress, blanket or even a pillow. Many times he was thrown into “the hole” an underground cell with no sanitary facilities, no light, no cot or blanket or any of the things that most of us would consider necessities for survival. He was allowed to be clothed only in his underwear, t-shirt, and socks, even in winter and regardless of the temperature. He was given a coffee can full of water in the morning that was to last for 24 hours and a small bit of stale bread. If he accidentally knocked the water over and spilled it in the dark he was out of luck until the next morning. This particular type of cruel and unusual punishment was eventually outlawed after the ACLU sent one of their members to McAlester to try a stint in the hole. After only 6 hours he was panicky and demanded to be released. Reno has been forced to wear shirts with the word “inmate” stamped across the back and treated like a second class citizen.
“Why,” we must ask ourselves. Why was an innocent young man sent to prison for life when he had nothing to do with the crime? Why did the American justice system fail to protect him? Where did things go wrong? Are the rest of us in danger of being sentenced to prison even though we have done nothing illegal?
Sometimes district attorneys and prosecutors are so anxious to solve a crime, especially a violent one, and over-zealous about getting a conviction of the accused that they will go to questionable or even illegal lengths to accomplish their goal. Other causes of wrongful convictions include forensics / DNA; eyewitness identification; false confessions; jailhouse informants; police misconduct, and ineffective representation.
In Reno’s case he was not even arrested for the murder of Cathy Scott but for “being high on an unknown substance” – a charge of which he was never convicted. Two days after his arrest Cathy’s parents reported her missing and 4 hours later Reno was charged with the crime. Reno pled not guilty but was told repeatedly by assistant district attorney, John Turner, that if he did not change his plea he would be found guilty and executed in the electric chair. Without adequate legal representation and not wanting to involve his family in the situation Reno didn’t know what to do. He hated the thought of pleading guilty to such a deplorable crime as the murder of a 13-year old girl but he felt it was the only way to save his life and buy some time. At least he would be alive and could attempt to fight the conviction or eventually work his way up through the system and someday be released on parole. He did not count on the change in laws brought on by the new “hard on crime” philosophy that began sweeping through Oklahoma in the late 80s. These laws and related attitudes caused him to be brought back to a medium security prison after he had worked his way up to a minimum security institution and they have also prevented him from being paroled.
In May of this year several murder victims’ families and relatives of death-row inmates who have been exonerated (notice that is victims’ families and inmates’ families together) met at the state capitol to encourage law makers to create a panel to examine where the criminal justice system breaks down when the wrong people are convicted. Legislation calling for such a panel has failed the last two years and failed this year as well. Last year, Democratic Senator Susan Paddack of Ada, filed Senate Bill 1471, which would have created the Oklahoma Innocence Commission. It passed the full Senate but was never granted a hearing in the House Corrections and Criminal Justice Committee. This year, she filed Senate Bill 940, which would have created the Oklahoma Exoneration Review Commission. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee but never received a hearing. Why are most of our elected officials not interested in taking measures to improve our justice system, insuring that justice is accomplished and only guilty people are sentenced to prison?
Present at the meeting at the capitol was Christy Sheppard, the cousin of murder victim Debra Sue Carter whose story is told in the John Grisham book, “The Innocent Man”. Ms. Sheppard was quoted as saying, “I don’t see how making sure the right criminal is in prison is soft on crime.” She stated that the issue is about more than wrongful convictions but the failure to convict the guilty. It seems obvious that if we are locking up innocent people that consequently those who are guilty are running free which allows them the opportunity to prey on more victims.
Nancy Vollertsen of Edmond recently discussed the painful conviction of her brother Greg Wilhoit, his subsequent death sentence, five years on death row and eventual exoneration in 1993. A bite mark found on the body of his wife, Kathryn Wilhoit, who was killed in 1985, was key evidence against him. It was later determined that the bite mark was not made by Greg Wilhoit. Yet Mr. Wilhoit never received an apology or a penny of compensation according to Ms. Vollertsen.
Another person released recently after his conviction was overturned is Curtis Edward McCarty. McCarty spent over 20 years in prison after being twice convicted of the 1982 murder of 18-year-old Pamela Kaye Willis. McCarty’s mother, Shirley, expressed her desire to see a committee created that would review cases that resulted in wrongful convictions. “It’s exactly what needs to be done,” she said.
McCarty’s family maintains he was unfairly targeted by police after Willis was killed because he used drugs. “He didn’t get convicted of a murder,” his mother said. “He got convicted because of his lifestyle. They set out to get him and they got him.”
The case against McCarty, who had been convicted twice and sentenced to death three times, was dismissed when an Oklahoma County judge ruled evidence was tainted by the misconduct of Oklahoma City police chemist, Joyce Gilchrist. McCarty’s attorney, Perry Hudson said he expects McCarty to pursue a civil lawsuit now that he has been exonerated. “I hope he gets all the money in the world” Hudson said, but it won’t rectify this situation”. Those years of life that were stolen away by the system can never be given back.
DNA evidence was instrumental in reversing some of the above mentioned convictions. In the case of Reno Francis, however, there is no DNA to clear him. The case is simply too old. The fastest way for Reno to be given his freedom is through the granting of a parole. Although that avenue would not clear his name it would give him the opportunity to be with his family and to live a somewhat normal life. The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board has not been very generous for the last several years when reviewing the files of violent offenders. They have taken a blanket approach to these reviews regardless of who the inmate is and the type of person he is. And when they do see fit to recommend the occasional parole or commutation for an inmate in the “violent” category, that parole is rarely, if ever, approved by Governor Henry.
17 days from arrest to prison for Reno Francis and he wasn’t even arrested for the murder he would later be coerced into confessing to. 17 days that have led to 37 years in prison so far. Why is it so difficult to attempt to right this horrible wrong? Why can this man with so much to offer to society not be cleared of a crime he did not commit?
If anyone has any information regarding this crime that took place in Holdenville, Oklahoma in August of 1970, please contact the US Observer Oklahoma immediately at 405-246-9444. No clue is too small or insignificant. We are interested in everything to do with the tragic murder that took away two lives – the life of Cathy Scott and the life of Reno Francis.