Connecticut Put A Probably Innocent Guy Behind Bars For 70 Years
Francis Clifford Smith appears to have been wrongfully imprisoned for murdering Grover Hart in the dining room of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. Thankfully, the key witnesses admitted they lied, the lead investigator announced he was wrong, another man came forward and confessed to the murder, and Smith was released from prison in September 2020. This sounds like an inspirational movie … until you learn that Smith was arrested on July 28th, 1949, and is believed to be the longest-serving prisoner in American history. He spent over 70 years in prison, despite obvious evidence pointing to his innocence being known for almost that entire time. I helped get him released, and I think he deserves an apology while he is still alive ...
The Murder Was In the Middle of a Yacht Club In One of America's Richest Towns
My hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut (pronounced gren-itch) is basically a giant tax dodge. Thanks to a territorial dispute in the 1600s, Greenwich wound up at the extreme end of the Connecticut Panhandle. This makes it possible for you to live within sight of New York City without being required to pay New York or New Jersey state income taxes. Rich New Yorkers move here whenever Connecticut's taxes are relatively low, and momentum keeps them here when they aren't. This is largely why Greenwich has some of the richest zip codes in the country, as well as such a cartoonishly large number of country clubs, and water clubs, and yacht clubs that I have to awkwardly extend this sentence just to link them all.
This brings us to Francis Clifford 'Frank' Smith, a petty criminal who made his living stealing from these clubs in the 1940s. Before he went away forever, Smith's last known crime was swiping a box of expensive cigars from a country club, who didn't even notice they had been robbed. He was a crook, sure, but he didn't deserve to spend 70 years in prison for a crime that there's basically a 0% chance he actually committed.
That crime, a robbery gone wrong, occurred in the early morning hours of July 23rd, 1949. A pair of masked gunmen broke into the Indian Harbor Yacht Club and shot Grover Hart, a 68-year-old night watchman, in the dining room. Hit with bullets fired from two different guns, Hart was rushed to a hospital and died the following evening.
The next day, even before Hart had died, the police zeroed in on George Lowden and Frank Smith after they were seen running from a stolen car that turned out to contain one of the murder weapons and some of the loot from Indian Harbor. These men were known criminals, and Smith was specifically known to steal from clubs, so they were about as obvious as suspects get. The two men hid in the woods for a few days and were the subject of a massive manhunt. Smith was captured first and helped the police find Lowden, who quickly confessed to the murder and implicated Smith. Lowden's story was corroborated by a witness who claimed to have seen Smith driving the car used in the murder. Smith was promptly convicted and sentenced to death. Lowden took a plea deal and was paroled in 1966.
That might seem as open-and-shut as crimes get, and it was … but only for Lowden.
Then the Whole Case Collapsed and Someone Else Confessed
The star witness against Smith at his 1950 murder trial was George Lowden. To escape the death penalty, Lowden agreed to testify that Smith was the second shooter … then recanted his story on the witness stand and claimed the police had forced him to lie.
Lowden's recantation was refuted by Edith Springer, who claimed to have seen Smith driving the car used in the murder. While Smith was on death row, Springer recanted her testimony and admitted she had committed perjury. So, yes, Springer lied about Lowden lying about lying. Say that 10 times fast.
Really, all that's left of the case is Smith running from the car. This was incredibly suspicious, sure, but it is entirely plausible that Lowden and the other killer split up after the murder, and then Smith just happened to be in the wrong car at the wrong time. That is exactly what occurred, according to … the other killer. In 1953, a local armed robber named David Blumetti confessed, admitting it was actually him and Lowden who had murdered Hart, insisting that Smith was innocent. Blumetti was a known associate of George Lowden, who had fled Connecticut immediately after Hart's murder. He eventually went on a crime spree in the Southern United States and wound up imprisoned in Alabama, where one of Smith's lawyers tracked him down and convinced him to confess.
To recap, two violent criminals were now admitting to being the two murderers. Meanwhile, the only credible evidence against Smith is that he was in the same car as one of the murder weapons … over a day after the crime occurred … while one of the murderers was also in the same car at the same time. I'm not a lawyer, but that evidence seems just a tad bit light to make Smith one of the most punished people in the history of justice, which is exactly what happened to him.
Appealing A Conviction is Harder than Breaking Out of Prison
For incredibly obvious reasons, Smith appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1954 to ask for a new trial. In a split decision, his appeal was denied.
For context, appealing a conviction is almost impossible because people accused of crimes don't get the benefit of the doubt after they are convicted. Both today and back in 1954, jury trials are supposed to have "finality," and appeals courts are extremely reluctant to reverse guilty verdicts. In layman's terms, this means that even though the entire case against Smith fell apart and no sane jury would convict him, that was no basis for reversing his conviction because he had already been convicted. Whether or not finality is a good thing overall is the subject of a spirited debate I'm not wading into, but the downside is that it sometimes causes obviously innocent people like Smith to rot in prison or get executed on dumb technicalities. The only solution to this is for the governor to pardon you, but the Governor of Connecticut can't pardon people.
On June 7th, 1954, the day of Smith's scheduled execution, the lead investigator into Hart's murder, Leo Carroll, announced he had been wrong. In a last-minute hearing, Carroll testified that "I'm positive he didn't kill Grover Hart. I'm not even sure he was at the murder," and Smith's death sentence was commuted with two hours to spare.
After essentially being deemed too innocent to execute, Smith sat in prison with a life sentence while his utterly hopeless appeals wound their way through the federal courts. When these inevitably failed, it was partially because the federal court ruled that even if a key witness lies, that isn't grounds for an appeal because Smith couldn't prove the prosecutors knew the witness was lying at the time (TO REPEAT: It's almost impossible to appeal a conviction). The good news is that this total BS didn't stop Smith from being freed in 1967. The bad news is he was freed via prison escape.
This wasn't some cunning MacGyver plan -- after all these years, Smith was a middle-aged inmate serving his sentence on an honor farm. By all accounts, when his final appeal failed, Smith simply snapped, stole a truck, and drove off. This triggered another massive manhunt, and he was recaptured in Massachusetts 12 days later. Smith robbed a store while on the run, so he's definitely not a saint but, to be fair, that's probably the worst crime he ever actually committed.
Smith was briefly paroled in 1975, and by then, he was in his early 50s. He went back to prison after 10 months for some sort of parole violation, the details of which I have never managed to find. That was his last taste of freedom until I entered this story 44 years later.
You Can Just … Stumble Into Old Murders, Apparently
I have written for Cracked.com on and off since I was in high school because I enjoy digging through mountains of inane, obscure information for no particular reason. The suckers who run this website simply pay me to do stuff I'd gladly do for free (don't tell them I said that).
That is how I wound up reading this particular Wikipedia article in late January 2019. It listed people who had served long prison sentences, and it looked like someone named Francis Clifford Smith was about to become the longest-serving prisoner in American history. I googled Smith out of curiosity, but there was basically nothing about him online at the time. I was particularly annoyed that I couldn't even find a local news article about him because obviously, someone from whatever random town his crime occurred in would have to write something about this milestone, right? … Right?
I eventually learned, to my absolute astonishment, that Smith was in prison for a murder in Greenwich, Connecticut. That was a complete coincidence. The directions from my childhood home to the murder scene are "leave the driveway, take the second right and drive straight." However, I couldn't find anyone who had ever heard of this guy, which is strange because we don't have many murders around here, let alone whodunits. Of course, I should mention somewhere in this article that you might have heard of Greenwich because Robert F. Kennedy's nephew was involved with a woman's death, but that's really the only thing that competes with Grover Hart's murder in terms of pure intrigue. (Oh, and please don't confuse that with the time RFK's brother was involved with a woman's death. That was way out in Martha's Vineyard, near our summer cottages.)
Out of sheer curiosity, I started digging through some old court documents to figure out the basics of what Smith did, but nothing added up. Since I wasn't actually trying to figure out if he was innocent or not, I did not immediately realize the entire case was simply a giant, moldering turd. However, it eventually became very clear that there had been some sort of mistake, and, to be honest, I felt bad for the guy. Smith didn't deserve what happened to him.
I put this all together while I was studying Economics at Cornell University and writing Cracked articles in my free time, which means I had no credentials whatsoever to be looking into old murders. However, because I am from Greenwich, it was possible to get people in the town to listen to me. Crucially, I was able to get in contact with Robert Marchant, a journalist from The Greenwich Times, who started looking into this case as well. He did significant research and wrote two articles about it. It was Rob who verified or originally found many of the key details you're reading about in this article, and he deserves special thanks for his hard work. With the information the two of us had found, it became clear to me that I had stumbled ass-backward into a pretty awful miscarriage of justice.
In the End, The Government Had to Convince Him to Leave Prison
In February 2019, I decided to write letters to some of the state representatives and senators from Greenwich, laying out the details and asking if they could look into this case. This was the first time in my life that I had written letters to politicians or done any sort of activism whatsoever, and … holy cow, it worked. Smith wasn't exonerated, but at least he got released.
Most of the politicians were, of course, very polite and completely useless. However, one called me almost immediately, took an interest in the case, and then went off to go bug the Department of Corrections and the Public Defenders' office for answers. I won't name this genuinely useful politician because he bluntly explained that, should Smith be released, the public nursing homes he would get sent to are so awful that they are "probably worse than prison" (Remember that line for later). Amusingly, after things had gotten stirred up, some sort of lawyer called asking me for details and said, "This is very impressive. They said you were a student. Which law school do you go to?" She was very confused when I explained I studied economics.
As it turns out, Smith didn't want to leave prison. He was completely institutionalized and had written the parole board 10 years earlier saying he didn't want to be released anymore. Then he got released anyway. What I can tell you for sure is that Smith was cleared for release without him asking for it. Then he had to be convinced that a nursing home was better than prison before he allowed the government to release him in September 2020 at the age of 96. There was no press attention about this at the time. In fact, it didn't hit the news until March 2022, but it was overshadowed by the Invasion of Ukraine.
I highly suspect, but cannot confirm, that Smith was granted Nursing Home Release. This is essentially a legal loophole that allows the Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Corrections to unilaterally parole elderly prisoners to a nursing home. Nursing Home Release is almost never used and doesn't have to be publicly reported when it is, but the DOC confirmed that only one prisoner had been approved for release in this way in either 2019 or 2020. Smith was probably that prisoner. It seems rather fitting that Smith's deranged Willy Wonka magic adventure through the justice system could have ended in such a strange way.
Smith is Still Alive Today
After 8 years of writing articles for Cracked.com, I will now, for the first time, explicitly express a political opinion here. *Ahem*: I think Frank Smith deserves an apology while he is still alive.
As of the time of writing, Smith is 97 and living in a nursing home near Hartford, Connecticut. I have been told that Smith is conversational, but strangely, it seems like no one is ever allowed to meet or speak with him. When I asked the nursing home spokesman if Smith at least had contact with his family, the extremely reassuring response I got was (and this is a verbatim quote sent to me in writing), "It sounds as if he has been in touch with some family at some point." Yeah, so, on the off chance Smith's family is reading this article, please know that your long-lost great uncle or whatever is alive and out of prison. Just an FYI. Probably a pretty awkward way to find out.
While Smith was a scumbag in the 1940s, he suffered the worst miscarriage of justice ever, excluding innocent people who were executed. Not only is he almost certainly outright innocent of Hart's murder, but Smith was never really given a fair trial nor a fair appeal. Even today, he is basically on parole and thus not fully free.
How to treat criminal defendants, in general, is a huge question I'm not here to answer, but they definitely shouldn't be treated like Francis Clifford Smith. I'm not saying this is the fault of any elected politician today, but I think that the current Governor of Connecticut (who is coincidentally from Greenwich) should consider apologizing to this guy on behalf of the state for, um, stealing his entire life. That was totally not cool.