Archive for the 'Criminal Justice' Category

A Portrait of Innocence in the Face of Frank Wetzel


Red Flags in Media Hands and the Case of Frank Wetzel

definition:  red flag, something that provokes an angry or hostile reaction (

quote:  The evidence of Mr. Wetzel’s guilt…is highly suspect.  [attorney Mark Edwards, Petition for (Wetzel) Clemency, December 18, 2002]

He would have had to average a speed of 140 and 190 m.p.h. (to have committed the two crimes of which he was convicted) (court document requesting reconsideration of Frank Wetzel’s convictions as cited in Lost Angels Times article “1957 Murders Leave Lingering Mystery…)  

Getting any governor to commute the sentence of someone who killed a trooper is almost impossible…we get into the politics of it… opponents would use that… (attorney Jim Cooney, Family of Elderly Convicted Killer Wants Him Released,, Juny 8, 2011)

in the news:  1957 Murders Leave Lingering Mystery Despite a Conviction (Christopher Sullivan, AP February 5, 1995)

Family of Elderly Convicted Killer Wants Him Released (, June 8, 2011

Scandal-Plagued North Carolina Crime Lab Sued By Exonerated Man (Huffington Post, June 30, 2011)

in perspective:  Frank Wetzel was convicted in two separate trials of killing two state troopers within 15 minutes of each other at a distance of 45 miles apart.  The murders were committed in November, after 8 p.m. on North Carolina backroads.

Frank Wetzel is now 90 years old and has been eligible for parole since 1978.  His case comes up annually for review and the board still rules that he can benefit from further rehabilitation despite the fact that he has Alzheimer’s and has a 56-year-old half brother whose family would welcome Frank into its home with open arms.

The powerful force that has kept Frank Wetzel imprisoned for 54 years is the same one that brought about his convictions in the first place, despite numerous determinations that he did not have fair trials, despite recantation by a sole eye witness to the first murder who was allowed to testify in the second trial though he was not present, and despite the findings presented in a 2002 petition for clemency on Frank Wetzel’s behalf that said the evidence of his guilt was highly suspect.

That strong force more powerful than the law is the effect of red flags waved by the media to sway and motivate public sentiment according to a barometric reading by decision-makers about  the information the public should consume.  Viewership is important because it translates into ratings and sponsorship dollars.  It also translates into political and social power.

The article of June 2011 on the “Family of Elderly Convicted Killer Wants him Released” is one example of how the powerful red flag works in media hands when covering a story.  The local TV channel that conducted an interview with Frank Wetzel’s half-brother Richard never mentioned the facts of the case.  Among others, that included the timing of the two murders that would have required unreachable speeds for one perpetrator to accomplish.  The article also never stated other obvious factors that contributed to determinations that Frank Wetzel was innocent, including a recantation and claim of coercion by a sole eye witness and the staged planting of evidence linking the two killings.

Furthermore, rather than recounting the true facts of the murders, the article repeatedly states the fact of the convictions, even if erroneously since two juries and not just one convicted Frank as stated in the item.  In addition, the article quotes a top North Carolina defense attorney as stating point blank that Frank was among those who “killed a trooper.”  The article quotes North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue as saying “she won’t consider” commuting Frank’s sentence.  It also ends with Richard Wetzel saying he thinks it will take a death certificate to free his brother from prison.

Yet the case of Frank Wetzel deserves more careful consideration by media, political and legal powers than simply a wave of the “trooper killer” red flag.  If Frank Wetzel was really innocent, then a reexamination of his case while he is still alive would demonstrate the strong grip of injustice in our society.  It would also reaffirm the power of justice to defeat the unjust however long it takes.

The Case of Frank Wetzel as a Window on Global to Local Law

quote:  My clan against the enemy, my brother and I against the clan, me against my brother (Somali saying)

Like a fable…the fact of (Wetzel’s) guilt has been handed down and believed (Bill Currie, unpublished biography)

The Highway Patrol hopes (Wetzel) never will (win parole) (, January 22, 2004)

No governor wants to touch this (Rev. Jim Lewis, LA Times, February 5, 1995)

Parole of this inmate would…be an affront to all law enforcement officers (Gov. James B. Hunt, ibid)

in the news:  Convicted Murderer Wetzel Denied Parole (after 50 years) (, February 4, 2004)

Two 1990’s War Crimes Suspects Nabbed in One Day (UN, May 27, 2011)

in perspective:   Once upon a time the only laws were those of Mother Nature.  The caveman took what he could until he clashed with another doing the same.  Thereon they agreed to set up boundaries and cooperate according to rules.   Those rudiments of law, however, did not end the poaching and pillaging that has necessitated the continued evolution and refinement of law at every level.

By the twenty-first century, law is led by international regulation that for the most part lies beyond individual awareness.  United Nations Conventions and other instruments set standards, as in the Geneva Conventions regulating the conduct of war, the treatment of prisoners and protection of civilians during times of conflict.  The International Law Commission sets new standards for emerging situations such as the need to protect the environment.  The Commission for Trade Law (UNCITRAL) sets guidelines and rules for emerging economic activities such as e-commerce.

In addition, courts and related bodies have been established to oversee the carriage of justice.  The International Court of Justice adjudicates disputes between countries, including those involving borders and the use of natural resources shared by multiple countries, such as water supplies.   Tribunals preside over the proceedings of specific situations such as the investigation into the 1994 Rwanda massacre or the genocide in the Balkans.

The newest such body is the International Criminal Court, established in 2002 by the Rome Statute once 60 of the world’s 170 countries had signed on.  As of October 2010, 114 countries are parties to the Statute.  The United States is not one of them, in part because of concern about frivolous suits being brought against a superpower.  Other concerns include a controversy about whether the Court helps or hinders the process of bringing to justice the pepetrators of grave crimes such as genocide in a world where national legal systems are vastly diverse in development.  Nevertheless, on May 26, 2011,  the Court arrested two major leaders allegedly  responsible for the Rwanda and Balkans crimes against humanity.

The alleged atrocities in both cases occurred in 1994, meaning that both suspected masterminds were able to elude the law for 17 years.  At that level of national prominence, the individuals were protected from the law at every tier, from sympathetic governmental involvement to that of municipal authorities as well as close associates along with friends and families.

That large-scale evasion of the rule of law is demonstrated on the local scale by the opposite case of 88-year-old Frank Wetzel, who in 2011 has been confined in a North Carolina prison for over 50 years although he has been eligible for parole since 1977.  The influences keeping him confined involve the American national legal system, state-level interests, prison authorities and the ephemeral element of communally projected personal perception fueled by emotion.

There can be little doubt that Frank Wetzel took the fall for crimes he did not commit and was convicted by an unregulated sensationalist media in pre-Miranda protection days.  He was not represented by counsel in first hearings, conflicting testimony was unquestioned at his two trials, the only prosecution witness recanted his testimony in 1987 and the jury foreman admitted leniency in sentencing because the jury was not convinced of Frank Wetzel’s guilt.

Despite those serious irregularities, every request for a review of the case has been denied with no reason required to be cited.  The routine parole board decision is that the prisoner will benefit from further rehabilitation.

The facts of the case have been cited repeatedly from the time of the 1957 trial themselves.  Two State Troopers were killed within twenty minutes of each other at a distance of 80 miles apart, meaning that the driver would have had to travel over 100 miles on 1957 back roads to have been responsible for both killings.  Evidence against Frank Wetzel was skimpy and transparently manufactured.  Yet once behind bars with the label of law-enforcement-killer on his back, Frank Wetzel was intended to never get out regardless of who had committed the crimes of which he was convicted.

In his still-to-be published biography of Frank Wetzel, sportswriter Bill Currie outlined the grounds for giving credence to rumors involving in-fighting and personal hostilities in the North Carolina State Trooper system.  The state itself, however, has more than its fair share of corruption-tainted allegations.  In addition, as is well known, the American criminal justice system is shrouded in secrecy at the state and local levels.  Political appointments are routine.

Finally, the uncrackable bars of Frank Wetzel’s cell are cemented by the most common element of all, the personal investment poured into a strong belief, whether right or wrong.   More than 50 years after commission of the crimes, Trooper families come to Frank Wetzel’s parole hearings to lend support to the notion that no Trooper-killer ever be freed.

Support for the rule of law and for those involved in its implementation are among civilization’s highest ideals.  However, as evidenced by the case of Frank Wetzel and the refusal to review a very shaky pair of convictions,  it is obvious that the law comes from above but is carried out on the ground.  where it is human to err and not unknown to err intentionally.

Failure to carry out justice by a review of Frank Wetzel’s case casts a shadow of doubt on the entire law enforcement and criminal justice systems, not just in North Carolina but at the American national level.  A review of those systems should begin in North Carolina just as soon as Frank Wetzel is granted clemency for the long sentence of injustice he has already endured.