Oklahoma — It was 1970. President Richard 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; Ziplock bags were invented; violence erupted on the Kent State University campus, resulting in the death of four students; and former 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 Francis, then 23, attended the same party on a hot August evening. Later, Francis 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. Francis, who was already in jail, was charged with the crime.
He originally pleaded innocent. He was cooperative, even agreeing to be in a police lineup. He was not guilty and had nothing to hide. The lineup turned out to consist of one person: Francis. The assistant district attorney who handled his case threatened him with the death penalty, which in 1970 Oklahoma meant the electric chair. He harassed and frightened Francis 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 and his right to remain in the county jail for 10 days. For reasons Francis still doesn’t understand, his family was not allowed inside the county jail or court to visit or watch his hearing. Francis 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.
Francis knew nothing about who actually committed the murder. And years later, he still has no idea who was responsible for the crime that ended Cathy’s life and his 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 security unit. Because of that, in 1996, he was sent back to Lexington to another medium security facility, where he remained.
Spending more than four decades in prison, Francis had completed every program available to him. He participated several times in the Speak Out Program, which is designed to help keep young people out of prison. He ran more than 20 times in the Prisoners Run Against Child Abuse, even winning a trophy one year for running 44 miles. As a spiritual leader, he used his ability to encourage young inmates to change their lives for the better. He was liked and respected by the staff and inmates alike and was a peacemaker on the prison yard.
Francis is a very positive person with a strong faith in God. He loves to laugh and joke. He believes in being thankful every day and making the most of it. His wife, Verna Wood, supported him completely and missed only three Saturday visits over the years. While locked up, Francis was a wonderful father figure for her then-young son, Dusty. Upon watching the two together, one would never suspect that they are not biologically father and son. Many visitors to the prison at Lexington commented on the gentleness and loving care Francis gave to Dusty and what a pleasure it was to watch them together. In the winter they played board games, and in the summer they could be seen on the visiting yard practicing Dusty’s fastball with a “baseball” fashioned of trash and rubber bands.
In March, Francis celebrated his 67th birthday behind bars. He was 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 of whom have since passed away.
He only wanted a chance to walk out of prison and be with his family. He wanted to be with his son Dusty and his wife Verna. He wanted to enjoy his other children and grandchild. He wanted to be able to look across the countryside without seeing it through barbed wire and to be treated with the respect he deserves. He wanted to know the joy of breathing the air around him as a free man. That’s all he wanted: to be Reno Francis, husband, father, grandfather, free man.
During our investigation, we discovered the lack of evidence to support the State’s claim other than Francis’ extorted plea. 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.” The lack of evidence and tactics used to convict Reno should make any justice driven person cringe.
The US~Observer championed Francis’ freedom and supplied many letters and supporting information to legal authorities. We published numerous articles, which also greatly influenced his release. Francis’ attorney, Debra Hampton, did a tremendous job for Francis in her relentless pursuit to help him obtain his freedom. Also, without a doubt, his loving wife Verna dedicated many years of her life to help free Francis.
On April 30, Francis finally walked out of prison as a free man. Legal experts agree, “This is an extremely rare case. Reno should have spent his dying years behind bars. He was convicted and sentenced to life, without parole.”
Congratulations, Francis. You are finally free, and this moment will never be forgotten.
The US~Observer will be featuring Francis in our next publication.