By Joseph Snook
Verna and Reno Francis
Oklahoma, 1970 – President Nixon sent combat troops to Cambodia to destroy the North Vietnamese headquarters. The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. It was the year of the first Earth Day and New York Marathon. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died. Zip-Loc bags were invented. Violence erupted at Kent State University resulting in the death of four students. Former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry was in the first grade. 1970 was also the year that Reno Francis, a young Native American man, was wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to life in prison.
In the small eastern Oklahoma town of Holdenville on an August evening of the same year, Cathy Scott was murdered. Reno 23, had been at a party where Cathy was also in attendance. After leaving the party, Reno was arrested by local police while trying to use a pay phone in a nearby parking lot under suspicion of being “high on an unknown substance.” It wasn’t until two days later that Cathy’s parents reported their 13-year-old daughter missing. Her body was discovered shortly thereafter in a storage shed near the party site. Reno, who was in jail at the time, was charged with the crime.
Reno pled innocent and cooperated with police, even agreeing to take part in a police line-up. Knowing he was not guilty, Reno assumed he had nothing to worry about. Reno was wrong. The police lineup included only one person – Reno Francis. With no witnesses to the alleged crime, why was a line-up necessary? The assistant DA handling the case threatened Reno with the electric chair. Fearing for his life, Reno caved to the threats and reversed his plea. At the advice of his court-appointed attorney, Reno waived his right to a trial, appeal, and to remain in county jail for 10 days. For reasons still unknown to Reno, his family was not allowed to visit or watch his hearing. After facing the judge alone, save his second-rate attorney, Reno arrived at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester as a convicted murderer just 17 days after his arrest.
Reno knew nothing about the murder. Years later he still has no idea who may be responsible for ending Cathy’s life and sending him to prison. Rather than speculate and possibility incriminate another innocent party, Reno remains silent about who the murderer might be. He states, “I’m sorry for what happened. I feel for them (Cathy’s family). I wish I could do something, but there’s nothing I can do. Whoever did this is either deceased by now or is still out there. I believe the person, or persons are still out there.”
While serving over four decades in prison, Reno participated in every program available to him. He joined Speak Out, a program designed to keep troubled youths out of prison. He ran over 20 times in the Prisoners’ Run Against Child Abuse, even winning one year for running 44 miles. A spiritual leader amongst his peers, Reno encouraged inmates to change their lives. Known as a peacemaker on the prison yard, Reno was well-liked and respected by prison staff and inmates alike.
Reno Francis is a positive person with an unbreakable faith in God. He loves to laugh and joke around. He is thankful for each day on this earth and tries to make the most of it. His wife, Verna, supported him during a large portion of his prison stint, only missing three Saturday visits over a number of years. Despite being locked up, Reno was a strong father figure for Verna’s young son, Dusty. Watching them interact, you’d never guess that they aren’t blood related. Visitors to the prison commented on the love shared between Reno and Dusty, noting the pleasure it was to watch them together. Every winter, they would play board games. Every summer, they could be found on the visiting yard practicing Dusty’s pitches with a baseball made of trash and rubber bands.
In March of 2014, Reno celebrated his 67th birthday behind bars.
During our investigation into Reno’s case, we discovered an absolute lack of evidence to support the state’s claim against Reno other than the guilty plea the assistant DA extorted from him. There was no evidence, no witnesses, no DNA – nothing! According to records, “Mr. Turner (Reno’s prosecutor) was fired from his position as assistant district attorney shortly after Reno’s conviction for using underhanded tactics and threatening defendants who refused to plead guilty.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Reno was told “that the State’s evidence against him was destroyed in a fire” before being told on another occasion that “the file was destroyed in a flood.”
The lack of evidence combined with the tactics used to convict Reno should make anyone with a sense of justice cringe.
On April 30, 2014, Reno walked out of prison a free man. Legal experts agree, “This is an extremely rare case. Given the status quo, Reno should have spent his dying years behind bars. He was convicted and sentenced to life.” Nonetheless, Reno was “discharged” and his life sentence was commuted.
The US-Observer championed Reno’s case, supplying numerous letters along with pertinent information to legal authorities. Additionally, the US-Observer published numerous articles that influenced his release. Reno graciously said, “I’m proud of what you (the US-Observer) are doing. You have all of my respect. Ed (investigative reporter) has all of my respect. I love him very much.”
Debra Hampton, Reno’s attorney, relentlessly pursued his freedom. Reno stated, “She stayed on top of everything and did what she could. It took time. She kept her faith in me and believed in me. I’d recommend her to anyone.”
Reno’s loving wife, Verna, dedicated decades to helping free Reno. While talking about Verna, Reno lovingly said, “I love her to death. That’s my heart. I wouldn’t be here without her. It wasn’t easy. I would give my life for her at the drop of a hat. I’m gonna be a tick on her for the rest of my life!”
Reflecting on his experience, Reno is surprisingly content. He says, “I have no bitterness towards anyone. I know that’s kind of hard to understand why, but I’ve seen a lot of hate, and I live with that every day. What bothers me is that I have many brothers in prison. I’m here, and they’re still there. Many people who are still incarcerated for things they didn’t do.
Prison was a rough place to grow up. I had to do everything I could to keep my name good in there. I’m content to enjoy life and enjoy every day. I put the night in question behind me years ago.
No matter what happens, just keep on pushing – don’t ever give up. That’s the worst thing you can do. Keep searching for people that can help you. I was able to walk around with my head up.”
On June 13, 2014, Reno and Verna Francis were officially married. Verna reflected on what it’s like to have Reno home, “It’s wonderful. One of the pleasures is just watching him eat and enjoy good food. Knowing he’s safe and not having to worry. The kids are really enjoying him too. He’s taken some weight off of my shoulders that I’ve had for so long.”
Congratulations on your freedom, Reno! This moment will never be forgotten.
*Verna Francis helped contribute to this article.