The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Sept. 29 upheld a U.S. District Court decision that Frank Gable, the man found guilty of one of the most notorious murders in Oregon history, did not commit the crime for which he was convicted.
At issue: the 1989 murder of Michael Francke, then the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. Among the few undisputed facts: Francke, whom then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt had hired from New Mexico to simultaneously expand and clean up Oregon’s prisons, was stabbed to death around 7 pm on Jan. 17, 1989, in the well-lit parking lot of DOC headquarters.
The investigation transfixed the state for more than year.
Police finally arrested a small-time Salem criminal named Frank Gable in April 1990, but they never found the murder weapon. Gable went on trial in March 1991, a high-profile proceeding that stretched over four months. The jury found him guilty on June 27, 1991, and he was subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Gable always denied any involvement in Francke’s murder. Between his conviction and 2013, he filed appeals and petitions for post-conviction relief, finally exhausting all options in the state court system by 2013.
Gable then took the step that would make him a free man, although not for another six years: He convinced Nell Brown, a federal public defender in Portland, to take his case. Working with investigators, Brown worked her way through the long list of witnesses who’d testified against Gable. Nearly all of them recanted—a point the 9th Circuit panel highlighted in its 30-page opinion, which was first reported by the Portland Tribune.
“They attribute their false testimony to significant investigative misconduct, which the State—remarkably—does not dispute,” the decision says of the witnesses. “The state’s error was compounded by the trial court’s refusal to allow evidence that another man, John Crouse, had confessed multiple times to the murder. Crouse’s confession was particularly compelling because he gave details of the crime that were not publicly known.”
Compounding the impact of the now-discredited testimony, the court did not allow Gable’s defense team to present evidence about Crouse.
“Another man gave compelling confessions on multiple occasions,” the decision says. “On the merits, we hold that Gable’s due process rights were violated by the exclusion of Crouse’s confession.” (Crouse’s confession included details that investigators had withheld from the public. He died in 2013.)
Brown and her team made their case for Gable in a federal habeas corpus hearing in 2016. After a lengthy review, U.S. Magistrate John V. Acosta ordered Gable released from prison in June 2019 after he’d served nearly 30 years.
The Oregon Department of Justice appealed Acosta’s decision to the 9th Circuit, leaving Gable a free man in the meantime.
In its decision, the 9th Circuit noted that Gable had forfeited nearly every basis for a federal appeal because his defense team failed to raise them at state court, leaving him only one point to argue: “actual innocence,” which required him to show that “more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence.”
The panel determined his case met that standard. (Oregon DOJ is reviewing the decision, says agency spokewoman Kristina Edmunson.)
Gable could not be reached for comment but Brown, his attorney, issued a statement.
“I am incredibly happy for my client,” Brown said. “Although he will never get back the three decades of his life that he lost, this decision vindicates his steadfast claim of innocence and powerfully exposes the systemic flaws that led to his wrongful conviction.
“The 9th Circuit decision makes clear that, with the full story told, no reasonable jury would convict him. I’m proud of our exceptional and dedicated Federal Public Defender team for doing the work to tell that story. I hope my client will finally be able to enjoy the life he has created for himself in the community without this case hanging over him.”
The 9th Circuit’s ruling is also a vindication for former Oregonian and Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford, who spent years on the case and had long argued Gable didn’t kill Francke, most recently producing a podcast on the killing.
Gable’s acquittal doesn’t definitively answer the question of who killed Francke. Before he died, Crouse recanted his confessions. Another man Gable’s defense team hoped to implicate, Tim Natividad, was fatally shot by his girlfriend two weeks after Francke’s murder.