By US~Observer Staff
Oklahoma – USA – It was 1970. President Nixon sent combat troops into Cambodia to destroy the North Vietnamese headquarters, Super Bowl IV was played, the first Earth Day and the first New York Marathon were held, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix both died, zip lock bags were invented, violence erupted on the Kent State University campus resulting in the death of four students, and Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry was in the first grade. It was also the year a young Native American man named Reno Francis was sent to prison for life for a crime he did not commit.
Holdenville, a small town in eastern Oklahoma was the scene of the tragic murder of 13-year old Cathy Scott. Cathy and Reno, then 23, attended the same party on a summery August evening. Later that evening after Reno had left the party and was walking in a local parking lot where he had gone to find a pay phone he was arrested under suspicion of being “high on an unknown substance.” Two days later Cathy’s family finally reported her missing. In a very short time her body was discovered in a storage shed near the site of the party. Reno, who was already in jail, was charged with the crime.
Originally pleading innocent, Reno was cooperative, even agreeing to be in a police line-up. He was not guilty and had nothing to hide. The line-up turned out to consist of one person – Reno Francis. The assistant district attorney who handled his case threatened him with the death penalty which in 1970 in Oklahoma meant the electric chair. He harassed and frightened Reno until fearful of losing his life he finally changed his plea. His court appointed attorney told him to waive his right to a trial, his right to appeal, his right to remain in the county jail for ten days. For reasons Reno still doesn’t understand, his family was not allowed inside the county during the time he was locked up in the county jail. Therefore he faced the judge alone as his attorney was no comfort or help. Seventeen days after his arrest he arrived at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester, a convicted murderer.
Reno knew nothing about who actually committed the murder and 36 years later he still does not know who was responsible for the crime that stole his life away by sending him to prison. He doesn’t even like to speculate on the question as he is not willing to take a chance on incriminating another innocent person. He knows all too well how that feels.
After spending 14 years in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at McAlester he was sent to a medium security prison at Lexington. While there he exhibited trustworthy and responsible behavior which resulted in his transfer to a minimum security prison at Taft. He stayed there until a new law made it illegal for any prisoner with a life sentence to be housed at a minimum unit. Because of this in 1996, he was sent back to Lexington to another medium security facility where he still is today.
During his 36 years in prison Reno has completed every program available to him. He has participated several times in the Speak-out program which is designed to help keep young people out of prison. He has run over 20 times in the Prisoners Run Against Child Abuse, even winning a trophy one year for running 44 miles. As the spiritual leader in the Indian sweat lodge he uses his position to encourage young inmates to accept responsibility for their actions and to change their lives for the better. He is liked and respected by the staff and inmates alike and is a peacemaker on the prison yard.
Reno is a very positive person with a strong faith in God. He loves to laugh and joke. He believes in being thankful for every day and making the most of it. His fiancée, Verna Wood, supports him completely and has only missed three Saturday visits in the last six years. He is a wonderful father figure for her young son, Dusty. Upon watching the two together one would never suspect that they are not natural father and son. Many visitors to the prison at Lexington have commented on the gentleness and loving care Reno gives to Dusty and what a pleasure it is to watch them together. In the winter they play board games and in the summer they can be seen on the visiting yard practicing Dusty’s fastball with a “baseball” fashioned of trash and rubber bands.
In March 2007 Reno will celebrate his 60th birthday. Although he is no longer the young 23 year old man who was railroaded through the system and sentenced to life for something he didn’t do, he is an active, intelligent man who has a lot to offer to the world. He harbors no bitterness or resentment toward those who unjustly sent him to prison – most are long dead anyway.
He only wants a chance to walk out the prison gate and be with his family. He wants to help raise Dusty and to enjoy his other children and grandchild. He wants to be able to look across the countryside without seeing it through barbed wire and to be treated with the respect he deserves. He wants to know the joy of breathing the air around him as a free man. That’s all he wants – to be Reno Francis, husband, father, grandfather, free man.
Editor’s Note: Much unlike Reno Francis, the US~Observer is most resentful of his false prosecution. 17 days from arrest to a prison cell is the most outrageous act of heathenism this writer has witnessed in over twenty years of investigating false prosecutions. We are receiving calls and emails on a daily basis regarding falsely convicted or charged individuals from the State of Oklahoma where human beings are being rail-roaded like cattle through a shoot. Judges like Twyla Mason Gray are allowed to conduct insane sentencings where it is not at all uncommon for a person to receive 30, 40 or 60 years for highly questionable, alleged crimes resulting from charges that even if true should garner no more than 5 years. These same judges have elevated themselves to “God-like” positions where they actually help the prosecutors scare individuals into plea bargains. The public in general would believe that the Salem Witch hunts are a part of history, however nothing could be further from the truth. Witch hunts are alive and well, not in Massachusetts but in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Supposed justice in Oklahoma is still; find the nearest person, tree and rope, string the person up whether or not you have any credible evidence they have committed a crime and then start looking for your next case. And above all make sure the person is allowed to have an attorney hold their hand while you place the rope around their neck. Cruel and unusual punishment as well as the prosecution of innocent people is factually the status quo in OK…all the while public officials are concerned with prisons that are busting at the seams. If this were a perfect world Judge Gray and others of her ilk would be required to change places with the innocent people they have locked up. While we wait for perfection the US~Observer promises the Judge Grays and Wes Lanes of Oklahoma that before long their names will be household names in the Great State of Oklahoma.