Article by JOHN SNELL and PHIL MANZANO of The Oregonian Staff

Posted: May 14, 2009 in Francke Case
Leave it to me to prove myself wrong. Guess the perspective I’ve been sharing lately isn’t as new and fresh as I thought.
 
Guess you could call mine the expanded version.
 
That’s ok though. Nothing like a little supporting documentation. Kevin calls this a rant. Considering what I’ve witnessed myself, I call it pretty close to the truth. Most notably with regard to Kevin and Phil Stanford. Maybe I should contact the Oregonian. Hmmm….
 
Once again…
 
MEDIA COVERAGE OF GABLE MURDER TRIAL FULL OF RUMOR, CONSPIRACY AND SPECULATION THAT LEFT PUBLIC SURPRISED

 

Karen Robb was clearly irritated. She’d just surrendered four months of her life to serve as a juror on the Frank E. Gable murder trial, and after 10 weeks of listening to evidence, she found herself second-guessed by friends who said they were shocked by her verdict.

“I keep telling them that I was there every day, every minute,” Robb said the day after Gable was sentenced to life without parole for the 1989 murder of Oregon Corrections Director Michael Francke. “I keep telling them, ‘You’re basing your opinions on what you saw on TV and what you read in the newspaper.’ “Robb’s friends were not alone in their incredulous reaction to the verdict. Throughout the state, thousands who took a casual interest in the case said they were shocked by the outcome.

Salem’s local newspaper, the Statesman Journal, ran a half page of letters last week from readers who were stunned by the verdict.

Why were so many people so surprised?

Was the jury flat-out wrong after hearing 10 weeks of evidence, or was it the public who came to the wrong conclusions after reading two years’ of stories about conspiracy, rumor and innuendo?

 While not everyone will agree with the verdict, given the evidence in the case no one should be surprised by it.

 

 The state’s case against Gable hinged on the word of admittedly unsavory characters who said they either saw Gable kill Francke or heard him admit to the crime. If the jury believed these witnesses, Gable should have been found guilty. If jurors doubted their word, he should have been acquitted.

 

 Members of the jury said they chose to believe the witnesses because their version of events made the most sense.

 

 So, again, why are so many people so unwilling to believe that Francke’s death was a case, as the Register-Guard in Eugene described it, of a third-rate criminal killing a first-rate man?

 

 The Francke killing and Gable’s subsequent trial say something about one of the worst elements in human nature—suspicion and distrust, particularly of the institutions we rely upon to keep society together.

 

 They also say something about one of the worst instincts in our trade: There is an urge among journalists sometimes to print or broadcast the story that sounds or reads the best, rather than the one that most closely reflects the truth.

 

 “What I have read so far in the paper is not what happened in the courtroom,” juror Sheila Wood said after reading accounts when the trial was over.

 

 She was surprised by the accounts that appeared in her local paper, the Statesman Journal, which virtually ignored the bulk of the state’s evidence against Gable and instead parroted the efforts of his lawyers to set him free.

 

 Wood said she thought the press coverage was biased. Then she repeated the classic cliché about the news profession: Journalists do not care about the truth but are “only out to sell papers.”

 

 Reporters cringe when they hear that because at its heart journalism involves a commitment to the truth.

 

 But in this case, Wood may be right: The news media may have failed in their responsibility.

 

 Corruption and conspiracy are snazzy notions with built-in drama. They imply sinister motivations behind events that frequently happen for mundane reasons.

 

It’s far more interesting to think that Marilyn Monroe was murdered because she was sleeping with the president than to think that she took an overdose of sleeping pills to end her own life.

It’s sexier to think that a young, popular president was killed by a group of pro-Castro sympathizers with Mafia connections than to believe that a disturbed warehouse clerk shot him with a rifle.

 At our own newspaper, articles about conspiracy and corruption and the ineptness of the police investigation into Francke’s death helped put Phil Stanford, a columnist at The Oregonian, in the forefront.

 

 Based on the flimsiest of evidence and frequently no evidence at all, Stanford suggested in his earliest columns that Francke was the victim of a plot by everyone from the Mexican mafia to the highest levels of state government. The scenario, according to Stanford, was that Francke had uncovered corruption in the state prison system and was killed by the corrupt conspirators in an effort to silence him.

 

 There was never much to support that view, not even after the state commissioned a special investigation to look into the charges, but it was — and is—fascinating reading. Those involved in the investigation were irritated by Stanford’s work and complained that it consisted largely of groundless accusations.

 

 But a number of them were able to live with his work by dismissing Stanford as “just a gossip columnist” under no obligation to report verified fact.

 

 Not so with Statesman Journal reporter Steven P. Jackson.

 

 Jackson became personally enmeshed in the Francke story to the point that he served as the best man at Gable’s surreptitious courtroom wedding to Portland attorney Karen Steele.

 

 He became the resident conspiracy expert on the case, appearing on local radio and television shows and finally on the NBC-TV series “Unsolved Mysteries,” where he discussed the “abduction theory” surrounding Francke’s death.

 

 The program re-enacted Jackson’s theory that Francke was kidnapped by a group of men outside his office, taken to an unknown location, then returned to his office where he was killed.

 

Although defense attorneys tried to hint at this scenario during the trial, they didn’t get very far with it. The porch where Francke’s body was found was splattered with Francke’s blood. There was no plausible explanation for how a group of killers could have followed Francke to a porch where he died without tracking in the blood.

 Just before the trial, Jackson claimed that knives belonging to a dead Salem drug dealer matched the wounds in Francke’s body, suggesting that the dealer, not Gable, was the killer. As it turned out, the knives didn’t match at all.

 

 Once the trial began, Jackson’s coverage was remarkable not for what he reported as much as for what he chose to ignore. The state’s closing argument which defense attorneys and even Francke’s brother, Kevin, described as a masterful summation of the case—went largely unreported by Jackson.

 

 As the trial progressed, those close to the investigation, and even Jackson’s colleagues in the media, wondered whether he was more interested in covering the trial or in selecting those parts of it that backed up his theory that Francke’s death was the product of a sinister conspiracy.

 

 By any journalistic standard, Jackson’s work and the performance of his newspaper were unsupportable. Robert W. Chandler, chairman of the board and editor of The Bulletin in Bend, wrote after the verdict that Statesman Journal editors “abdicated” their responsibilities to filter out the incredible and unsupported parts of Jackson’s coverage.

 

 On the surface, the performance of a reporter for a local paper may seem like small fish to fry. Stanford got the ball rolling on sensational Francke coverage, but ultimately it was Jackson who served as the core of the media self-feeding frenzy. At one point, Jackson would write about a new twist; Stanford; that would be mentioned by Willamette Week’s Francke Talk column; that would be rehashed by local television, would pick that up.

 

 As an example of how reporters played off each other, during the first week of the trial Jackson wrote that Francke’s pocket pager was missing. He said it was a key piece of defense evidence and suggested it had vanished while in the custody of the state police.

 

 A few hours before Jackson’s copyrighted story was even published, Stanford wrote about the pager and credited Jackson with the new revelation. As it turned out, Francke had rented the pager. It was returned to the rental company after being processed for evidence and was available to Gable’s attorneys at any time.

 

 For television, the trial was a tough story to cover—one that didn’t lend itself to self-explanatory sound bites and easy visuals.

 

 In many crimes there are one or two damning items of evidence upon which a case seems to hinge. There is a confession, or the word of an eyewitness.   There is a fingerprint on a glass or a footprint in the sand that points irrefutably to the killer.

 

 That wasn’t the case this time. The evidence against Gable was more subtle and made up of many pieces of sometimes seemingly insignificant elements brought together to suggest an overall picture of the crime.

 

This is admittedly difficult to relate in a 2-½ -minute nightly report.

Television may have also handicapped itself by relying on a comparatively new technique of coverage: using cameras in the courtroom.

Since 1989, the Oregon Supreme Court has allowed TV reporters to take their cameras into the courtroom and cover trials in much the same way they would cover other official bodies like city council meetings or the Oregon Legislature.

Before the change, TV reporters covered trials the same way newspaper reporters do: by taking notes and writing a narrative. Trials in those pre-camera days were illustrated by sketch artists.

 By giving TV reporters access to the tools of their trade, the public is supposed to benefit by having a better understanding of how the court system works.

 

 What happened in the Gable trial, however, was just the opposite. Most of the TV and radio reporters covering the trial spent little time in the courtroom each day. In fact Phyllis Burke of Portland’s KATU (2) was the only TV reporter who regularly attended the trial. The rest stayed on a floor below, in an “official press area” cordoned off by barricades.

 

 There, the electronic media listened to the proceedings on headphones and chose which sound bites from the trial would accompany that day’s story. Their stories were illustrated not with video of the most significant witnesses of the day, but with pictures of those who would agree beforehand to be photographed.

 

 In effect, the TV pool went from reporting the trial to editing it for snippets of audio and video—reporting not what best explained what happened that day, but choosing from the available footage the pieces that made the most effective television.

 

TV’s technique for covering trials with their cameras is comparatively new, and they owe it to the public and their trade to examine their work on the Gable trial and ask some hard questions:

Can TV reporters cover a trial when they aren’t even in the room?

Perhaps.

Can they present a balanced view, though, when the prosecution refuses to wear microphones for sound, fearing that their private conversations about trial strategy would be broadcast?

Probably not.

Yet that is what happened in the Gable trial.

A pivotal moment in the trial was the testimony of Jodie Swearingen, a 19-year-old methamphatamine user who claimed to have seen Gable murder Francke. Swearingen testified about what she saw before the grand jury that indicted Gable, but changed her story at the trial and instead appeared as a defense witness.

She told the jury that she was lying when she first claimed that Gable killed Francke to get Corrections Department documents out of his car. She lied, she told the jury when questioned by the defense attorneys, because police had pressured her to help them solve the case.

TV reported that, like Jackson, they failed to grasp the full significance of Swearingen’s cross-examination. There, Sarah Moore, an un-miked prosecutor, read Swearingen’s grand-jury testimony into the record and got her to admit that she told other people about Gable’s involvement in the killing well before she would have been subject to the alleged police pressure to lie.

It was a critical moment when the star defense witness was effectively blown out of the water. Swearingen’s word was the only evidence that supported the first count of the indictment, claiming that Francke was killed because of his position as head of corrections.

By virtue of their verdict, jurors rejected Swearingen’s trial testimony—which TV reported—and fully accepted what she said to the grand jury — which most of television mentioned only in passing.

·        Can TV objectively cover a story when an advocate for one side is sitting with them and joking with them day after day for 10 weeks?

 

Probably not. Yet that, too, happened in the Gable trial.

Kevin Francke was an infrequent visitor to the courtroom where his brother’s killer was being tried. But he was a regular in the press area, as was his attorney, Steve Krasik.

Kevin Francke has been the chief proponent of the notion that Gable was a patsy for higher-ups actually involved in the killing.

He is a surviving family member of a man who was brutally murdered and as such deserves public sympathy. But he is also, frankly, less than credible, and does not deserve the public’s ear. Francke left his marriage and jettisoned his Florida construction company to come to Oregon and start his own investigation into the murder. His probe so closely bordered on interference that he was warned by the lead prosecutor not to meddle.

And once in Oregon, he became the live-in lover of a woman who killed her drug-dealer husband.

It is hard to gauge whether press coverage of the trial was affected by making the press area open to Francke and Krasik, who offered legal analysis to the reporters. But having those kinds of advocates in the press area was unusual but their presence was quite handy for the form of journalism that thrives on pat answers and easily processed snippets of sound. Kevin Francke is eminently quotable and an easy and available interview.

“I was more surprised, shocked,” he told KPTV’s Lars Larson after the verdict. “I could feel the whole room here—it just felt like the wind got sucked out of the courthouse.”

The room Francke referred to was the press area, where he’d been hobnobbing with radio and television reporters for the past 10 weeks. And the shock among these reporters, who missed the boat on much of the state’s case, was real.

Eric Mason of Portland’s KOIN (6) echoed the shock felt by his fellow reporters when his anchor asked whether the verdict came as a surprise.

“In this town, for more than two years, the local newspaper, many people have publicly thought this murder was committed by people involved in some sort of conspiracy,” Mason said on the air. “From that standpoint, yes, it did shock a lot of people.”

It was a fair summary of the situation. Finding out that you’ve been dead wrong for 2 ½ years is bound to come as a surprise to most people.

Will the talk of conspiracy and cover-up go away? Not likely. Gable’s new wife, Karen Steele, is an accomplished defense attorney dedicated to freeing her husband so they can spend a life together. She certainly will not let the matter die.

Unless embarrassment overpowers their pattern of hysteria, neither will Jackson and the Statesman Journal. Their practices lie somewhere in the not-so-gray area between questionable and professionally abhorrent, but Jackson and his editors certainly believe they are on the right track or they wouldn’t have followed the course they have.

Former CBS network newsman Daniel Schorr has said that conspiracy theories thrive because they make the mundane parts of history interesting.

But after 2 ½ years, enough is enough. It is now time to set fascinating conjecture aside and live with reality.

“In the end, the jury decided that the truth was shabby and uncomplicated,” the Eugene Register-Guard wrote in an editorial after Gable was found guilty on all counts. “The truth lacks the excitement and glamour of an underworld plot. It was a case of murder that occurred during Gable’s botched attempt to burglarize Francke’s car. Case closed.”

Phil Manzano and John Snell are The Oregonian reporters who covered the Frank Gable murder trial. Prior to the trial, Manzano wrote more than 150 stories about the investigation into the Michael Francke murder. Snell has covered the trials of convicted killers Dayton Leroy Rogers and Westley Allan Dodd.

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Comments
  1. Ex-Salem says:

    I kick myself for not being able to go to the trial, but I still have my opinions, because I think on the other hand, they did not hear all of what we know.I would like to read the court transcripts some day.

  2. Ex-Salem says:

    Time has a way of clouding your judgment. hmm, you keep reading and it is hard to know what to think anymore. Were we really blind back then? I doubt that. There are just too many strange and inconsistent things that don’t add up.If it was a botched car burglary, the idiot forgot to take anything! You mean to tell me that they got so scared after stabbing him, that they ran? Ha, ha, what a wimp! Don’t pull a knife on someone if you are not going to use it!“Swearingen’s word was the only evidence that supported the first count of the indictment, claiming that Francke was killed because of his position as head of corrections.”Her word supported the fact that he was killed because of his job. But there was no corruption?“Sarah Moore, read Swearingen’s grand-jury testimony into the record and got her to admit that she told other people about Gable’s involvement in the killing well before she would have been subject to the alleged police pressure to lie.” I doubt she could remember what she told to who, on what day.“Jurors rejected Swearingen’s trial testimony and fully accepted what she said to the grand jury”Now we believe her, now we don’t! It is my understanding that if someone lies, you can reject all of their testimony. Sounds like, she was coerced, every time.

  3. Rob says:

    As I said, I feel this article comes pretty close to the truth, and spells out quite well how the media play on each other’s stories in the way they report things. What Manzano and Snell accused Stanford and Jackson of doing, was repeated again around late 2004-early 2005, when the Trib and the WW wrote articles about the Linda Parker statement that Kevin claimed to have stumbled across. Kevin was responsibe for pushing that story. I have emails from him indicating such. No sooner did those Linda Parker stories appear, and lo and behold we get an article by Nick Budnick while he was still with the WW all about Phil Stanford and his long-time devotion to this case, and the ups and downs he encountered throughout. Like losing his job at the O and taking heat from his peers and others. Kevin wasn’t left out either. Making light of his daily ritual of hanging out at Magoos bar in Salem and quoting statements by him of how Noelle Crombie approached him about the Oregonian planning to begin their most extensive look into the case. Just another chance for him to cap on the Oregonian.See how all that was an exact repeat of what Manzano and Snell were accusing them of prior to the trial? It’s crazy, but it’s true. Over a decade later and they are still rehashing old news and using it to afford others like Budnick the opportunity to build up an alleged long-time commitment by Kevin and Phil. Neither one of them had done squat since the movie in 1995. There were no articles in the paper. Hell, Phil wasn’t even working in the media until 2001 when the Trib hired him, and it wasn’t until 2004 that he even mentioned the Francke case in his column.Things in Manzano and Snell’s article I don’t agree with are their comments pertaining to Jackson’s abduction theory."The program re-enacted Jackson’s theory that Francke was kidnapped by a group of men outside his office, taken to an unknown location, then returned to his office where he was killed. Although defense attorneys tried to hint at this scenario during the trial, they didn’t get very far with it. The porch where Francke’s body was found was splattered with Francke’s blood. There was no plausible explanation for how a group of killers could have followed Francke to a porch where he died without tracking in the blood."True, but who says the abduction theory has the killers following Francke to the door at the end of the north portico after returning to the dome building? The re-enactment on Unsolved Mysteries did actually, but couldn’t they have returned to the dome building, stabbed Francke, possibly even in a car, and leaving him to stumble north along the front sidewalk, up the steps of the North Portico and down the hall to the door…alone?Actually, I have a few comments I’d like to make about things stated in Manzano and Snells article. Maybe later, but I do want to quote one portion of the article."The evidence against Gable was more subtle and made up of many pieces of sometimes seemingly insignificant elements brought together to suggest an overall picture of the crime."Couldn’t have said it better in how I’m attempting to support my allegations concerning Kevin and Liz.

  4. Ex-Salem says:

    Yeah, I like that statement. But it made my head want to explode with laughter, or maybe it is the fact that "I am a woman and can twist anything". "The evidence against Gable was more subtle and made up of many pieces of sometimes seemingly insignificant elements brought together to suggest an overall picture of the crime."How insignificant!?!? "you know he was acting pretty strange that night" (hind-sight being what it is)Blame it on the murder because now we have a significant event to tie everything to.

  5. Rob says:

    Hmmm…good analogy ex! I like your style. However, you’ve forced me to re-evaluate my statement "Couldn’t have said it better in how I’m attempting to support my allegations concerning Kevin and Liz."While I am in complete agreement with your analogy as it applies to Frank’s trial, am I applying a double standard here? While I feel some of my elements are significant, I think I would do well to refrain from using anything which could be contrued as "seemingly insignificant" and using those elements to further build my case.Funny thing about the way evidence is perceived. Reading the transcript, I’ve had to numerous times endure the Judge’s instructions to prospective jurors…"When we get to the end, I’m going to tell you that the only things you can use in deciding this case is the evidence you hear in this case in this courtroom at this trial. and the state does have the burden of proving his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Andthe term"reasonable doubt" means an honest uncertainty as to the guilt of the defendant. A reasonable doubt exists when, after a careful and impartial consideration of the evidence, you do not feel convinced to a moral certainty that the defendant is guilty."And what did the jurors do in the end after having that drilled into them numerous times? They took all the "seemingly insignificant" elements masterfully presented by Sarah Moore, and decided those combined elements "made the most sense."Scary!

  6. Ex-Salem says:

    Hell, those jury instructions will confuse the hell out of you.If the death penalty was on the table, do you think they would have convicted him?I might have wondered where the Defense was in the case.

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