Man convicted of killing Ore. prisons chief in '89 will leave prison

The case is one of the most notorious and debated murder cases in Oregon’s modern history


By Maxine Bernstein
The Oregonian

Frank Gable, who has been in custody for nearly 30 years in the killing of Oregon’s prisons chief in 1989, will walk out of a Kansas prison Friday morning while a state appeal is pending.

The release marks another remarkable turnaround for Gable in one of the most notorious and debated murder cases in Oregon’s modern history.

U.S. Magistrate Judge John V. Acosta on Thursday gave the green light for the release after Gable’s lawyers, prosecutors and state Department of Justice attorneys worked out many of the logistics.

The judge set the release for 10 a.m. Friday. Gable will leave the prison in Lansing, Kansas, where he’s been held the last several years, and must report directly to a federal probation officer in Kansas City. He’ll be under federal supervision, allowed to live with his wife in Kansas.

His travel will be restricted to Kansas or Missouri, unless his probation officer allows otherwise. He must participate in drug and mental health assessments and counseling as directed by the U.S. Pretrial Services Office.

Though the state urged the judge to place Gable on electric monitoring, Acosta did not.

Gable, now 59, was convicted in the January 1989 stabbing death of Oregon prisons chief Michael Francke, 42, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He’s been in custody since September 1989.

Gable’s release follows a stunning ruling in April by Acosta, who found that the state judge in the case was wrong to exclude another man’s confession to the crime from the trial and that Gable’s defense lawyers at the time should have asserted Gable’s federal due process rights in light of that error.

Acosta also found that Gable’s lawyers had made a showing of "actual innocence'' based on new and old information, including multiple witnesses in the case who have now recanted their testimony and a record of improper interrogation and flawed polygraphs used to question the witnesses and shape their statements to police.

Acosta ordered Gable be released or retried within 90 days of his order.

The state is appealing, arguing, in part, that the other man’s confession was unreliable because he had changed his account multiple times. Acosta agreed to put his order to retry Gable on hold while the state’s appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is pending.

"He thanks those who believed in his innocence all these years,'' said Nell Brown, one of two assistant federal public defenders who represented Gable in challenging his murder conviction. "I am overjoyed that an innocent man will finally have his freedom.''

Francke was the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections when he was fatally attacked during a confrontation near his state-issued Pontiac outside of the Dome Building, the agency’s headquarters in Salem. Francke, who was brought in to lead the department two years earlier, bled to death from stab wounds and was found on the north porch of the Dome Building.

Gable was convicted of aggravated murder. Marion County prosecutors argued that Gable was breaking into the state prison system director’s car when Francke came upon him. They said Gable stabbed Francke three times and then fled. Francke staggered to the porch and died.

But Acosta was struck by the statements to police by another man, Johnny Crouse, who was on parole for a robbery at the time, repeatedly confessed to murdering Francke, telling numerous law enforcement officers as well as his mother, brother and girlfriend that he stabbed Francke when Francke caught him burglarizing his car. Crouse’s confession, Gable’s lawyers argued, was consistent with the crime scene and autopsy evidence, corroborated by eyewitness testimony and considered truthful by the one neutral polygrapher from the FBI who was flown in from out of state to test him.

If the state prevails in its appeal or Gable loses any further review by the U.S. Supreme Court, he must either report to the Kansas prison or another prison designated by Oregon officials within 72 hours, Acosta said. Gable shall waive extradition to Oregon, if necessary, in such a circumstance, the judge ordered.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel on Tuesday helped clear the way for Gable’s release, asking another judge to put a hold on a sentence of eight years and nine months hanging over Gable from an unrelated 1991 federal firearms conviction.

The federal sentence was supposed to run consecutively to Gable’s life sentence.

Gable will walk into a very different world than the one he knew when he was taken into custody in 1989.

"He is looking forward -- not looking back,'' Brown said, noting that Gable has mastered use of an iPad and wants to fish, hike and enjoy his freedom.

Francke’s brothers, Pat and Kevin Francke, have been staunch defenders of Gable and believe he was wrongly convicted. They’ve been awaiting Gable’s release for decades. Pat Francke has been in regular contact with Gable’s wife.

Pat Francke said Gable was packed and ready to leave prison.

"He’s jumping out of his skin,'' Pat Francke said. "He hasn’t been this close to release ever before. It must be like the night before Christmas but better.''

Here’s full statement by Gable’s lawyer:

Today, Frank Gable was ordered released by the Honorable John V. Acosta after nearly thirty years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Mr. Gable has expressed his deep gratitude to me, Mark Ahlemeyer, and Wendy Kunkel (and others from the Federal Public Defender office who contributed along the way) for investigating his case in depth, for believing in his innocence, and for pursuing justice for him over the course of the last decade. There were many hard days on this long journey.

Mr. Gable is beyond grateful to the Francke family for their support and grieves with them the loss of Michael Francke.

He thanks those who believed in his innocence all these years.

Mr. Gable is also grateful to the Court not only for ordering the relief he has long sought but for the opportunity to be released into the fresh air and sunshine.

He walks out into a very different world than the one he knew when he was last out of custody in 1989. He is looking forward – not looking back. He has already mastered use of an iPad and plans to take what life offers him as he always has—with a positive outlook and a sense of humor. He hopes to spend time fishing, hiking, and enjoying his freedom.

Mr. Gable does not wish to speak to the press at this time. I ask that you respect his privacy and allow him time to be with his family. Inquiries may be directed to me.

The Court’s meticulous decision granting relief and the order for Mr. Gable’s release remind me that habeas corpus remains an essential “bulwark of our liberties” as described by Blackstone long ago. While it took too many years—a number of which were on my watch as my team, at Mr. Gable’s request, took the time needed to investigate this matter exhaustively and in depth—I am overjoyed that an innocent man will finally have his freedom.

©2019 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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