A Political Prisoner in the Tar Heel State

by Tom Regan

In June of 1992, the Criminal Justice Committee of the North Carolina Council of Churches sent a letter to then Governor Jim Martin urging him to commute the sentence of a prisoner who, members of the committee said, “[was] being kept in prison for political reasons.”

Today, more than a decade later, the identity of our governor has changed, but not that of North Carolina’s most famous political prisoner.

Frank Wetzel, right, lived out his last years in a cloud of dementia, and maintained through the years that he was the victim in his case, not a cold-blooded cop-killer.

Frank Wetzel has been in North Carolina prisons since 1957 when, at separate trials, he was found guilty of the first degree murder of two North Carolina Highway Patrolmen: first Wister Reece, then (fifteen minutes later) James Brown.

The state’s case against Wetzel was a house of cards at best. Although his fingerprints were found on a .44 magnum, no murder weapon was verified because no ballistic tests were conducted. Moreover, in court testimony, the medical examiner testified that the fatal wounds were most likely made by a .38 or smaller caliber revolver. And not only were autopsies not performed in either case, the same medical examiner testified that Reece was shot at 6:00 p.m. and died an hour later. Yet Wetzel was found guilty of shooting Reece two hours later.

The prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of an itinerant preacher, Robert Terry, Jr. Hitchhiking his way south, Terry testified that he was picked up by a man he described at the time as dark-complected (Terry thought he might have been African American, Mexican, or Italian), who spoke with a foreign accent. The car in which he was riding, Terry said, was a white-on-black two-toned late model Chevrolet with Florida plates. Whoever the driver was, he was driving fast.

According to Terry’s testimony, when the car was stopped by Reece, the driver pulled a gun from the glove compartment, stepped out of the car, and shot the trooper as he approached. Terrified, Terry, who was later held as a material witness, hid in a ditch as the car sped away.

Some fifteen minutes later, after sending word to the dispatcher that he was stopping a speeder, Brown was shot in a similar fashion. He would die in a nearby hospital. Although Terry was not at the scene of the second murder, and despite the fact that he was more than forty miles away when Brown was shot, he was the state’s star witness at both trials. According to Terry, back then, Wetzel was a murderer twice over.

Terry’s testimony never made sense. Wetzel was (and remains) light-complected. He never has (and does not now) speak with a foreign accent. The car authorities traced to him at the time of the murders was a solid black Oldsmobile, not a two-tone Chevrolet. And it is a fact of physics, not a matter of criminal ideology, that no one, not even the near mythical Frank Wetzel, could murder two different people, separated by more than forty-five miles, within fifteen minutes.

The state’s case against Wetzel never has had any clothes, a fact that puzzled, but did not deter the jury in the Reece trial. After deliberating a mere three hours, the jury found Wetzel guilty of first degree murder with a recommendation of mercy. When asked to explain the verdict, the jury foreman told a Charlotte Observer reporter that members of the jury felt “there was a reasonable doubt” the State had proven that Wetzel was guilty of first-degree murder. “A reasonable doubt” existed, the jury believed. Unanimously. But if that was true, then the jury either should have acquitted Wetzel or found him guilty of a lesser crime (manslaughter, for example).

Perhaps even more significant than the weakness of the state’s case against Wetzel is Robert Terry’s eventual recantation. A devout Christian, Terry apparently could not live with his guilty conscience. In 1986, almost thirty years after the trials, and more than twenty-five years ago, he issued the following notarized statement:

I, Robert Terry, Jr., of Norman, North Carolina, being first duly sworn, depose, and say that I was taken into custody in November 1957 in connection with the prosecution of Frank Wetzel. At the time I was questioned, I was under a lot of pressure and felt as though I was being tried for my life. A Captain Welch pulled his blackjack on me and tried to make me accept the police’s version of the story. It was a pure torment for me to live at that time. At this time, I cannot describe the man with whom I rode from Asheboro. The man was not Frank Wetzel.

Is Terry’s recantation believable? Should we trust this, his second account of what happened?

Before we answer, consider: Terry was an uneducated black man apprehended at the scene of the murder of a North Carolina Highway patrolman. The time was 1956, hardly noteworthy for amicable racial relations in the south. He had no legal representation. He spent more than a week in the company of law enforcement officers as he was ferried back and forth from Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. He believed (by his own account) that he was “being tried for [his] life,” that he was threatened with a blackjack if he did not “accept the police’s version of the story.” What version of the story was that? Terry’s recantation leaves no room for doubt. The police’s version of the story was that Wetzel was the murderer.

Frank Wetzel never had a chance for a fair hearing. Before the first trial, the media already was referring to him as “Killer Wetzel.” In the interests of fairness, the theater across the street from the courtroom in which the first trial was heard advertised the movie it was showing (Baby Face Nelson) as “Crueler . . . More Viscous than Wetzel.”

Wetzel’s court appointed attorneys objected not. They requested no change of venue. They called not a single witness. Wetzel never testified in his own defense. They lodged not a solitary appeal. What they did was collect $400 for their services. Verily, this charade of justice takes one’s breath away.

We do not take cheaply the lives of the dedicated men and women who wear the uniform of the Highway Patrol when we ask, “Does this represent the best traditions of criminal justice in North Carolina?” No one of us, I am sure, takes the slightest satisfaction in the deaths of patrolmen Reece and Brown, or in the lingering hurt and anguish of their families. To ask North Carolinians to reconsider fairness for Frank Wetzel is not to ask anyone to extend indifference or cruelty to others.

In recent years the editorial staff of the News and Observer has distinguished itself by challenging all of us to think afresh about the justice of the death penalty, not only in theory, but as it is practiced here in North Carolina. This challenge raises important questions certainly. Informed, fair, compassionate people can and do disagree when it comes to the answers they give.

This thirst for justice has not characterized the N&O’s coverage of Frank Wetzel over the years. Not only has the newspaper never done an in-depth, factually informed, fair examination of his trials, it has steadfastly sided with those who lust after more punishment, not less. Thus do we find, for example, the N&O editorializing (the date is December 21, 1991):

Frank Wetzel is exactly where he belongs, and exactly where he should stay. In the roll call of cold-blooded killers, Wetzel could answer as one of the coldest and deadliest.

If we ask why, the editors are ready with their reply.

On the night of Nov. 5, 1957, Wetzel . . . was stopped for speeding in a stolen Oldsmobile near Ellerbe in Richmond County. When Trooper Wister Lee Reece pulled him over, Wetzel pulled a .44 caliber magnum revolver out of the glove compartment and shot the trooper dead. Reece had not even pulled his gun. There was an eyewitness to the killing, a man Wetzel had picked up on the road. Minutes after this murder, another trooper, James Thomas Brown, pulled Wetzel over and was mortally wounded.

Never mind that the eyewitness said Wetzel was driving a Chevrolet, not an Oldsmobile. Never mind that the murder weapon was never identified as a .44 magnum. Never mind that (according to the court evidence we have) the fatal wounds appeared to be caused by a .38 caliber or smaller weapon. Never mind that Trooper Brown could not have been shot “minutes later” by the same person who shot Trooper Reece. And never mind that, five years after Robert Terry, Jr. recanted his trial testimony, the N&O was still reassuring readers that “an eyewitness to [Reece’s] killing” fingered Wetzel. Teachers of journalism who want to introduce their students to incompetence and bias in the media need look no further.

More than the N&O’s editorial staff have beat the drum on the anti-Wetzel bandwagon. Not to be outdone by his bosses, columnist Dennis Rogers has reassured his readers that “[Wetzel] got two life sentences. And that is what the judge meant: the rest of his life in prison.” As is true of N&O coverage generally, Rogers gives us nothing about the inadequacy of Wetzel’s legal representation, nothing about Terry’s recantation, nothing except . . . Wetzel was guilty, let the facts and compassion be damned.

Rogers does give us one new perspective, however. Wetzel, he says, is a symbol. “If Wetzel walks, [law enforcement officers] feel, all is lost. As long as he is in prison, there is hope.”

Frank Wetzel is a symbol, all right. But not of truth. Not of compassion. Frank Wetzel’s protracted imprisonment is a symbol of how one man can be denied justice in order to satisfy the hopes of others. On average, throughout the United States, convicted murderers serve less than ten years. In 1994 (a not untypical year), 140 convicted murderers were paroled just in North Carolina. Since 1982, 16 prisoners convicted of murdering North Carolina law enforcement officers have been paroled after serving as few as 5 and as many as 26 years (10 years on average, about the same as the national average).

Compare these figures with Wetzel’s now more than 45 years in prison, 9 years of which were spent in solitary confinement. Forty-five years, not counting 3,023 days, another 8+ years of Gained Time and Merit Time earned towards parole. Forty-five years, not counting a prison record free of infractions since 1983. Forty-five years, with only four infractions against him, not one of violent nature despite threats and physical attacks against him. So, yes, Frank Wetzel has become a symbol, all right. On this score, there is no dispute.

Those people who want to be tough on Wetzel because they want to be tough on crime (and who doesn’t want to be tough on crime?) should pause to consider the words of Lou Columbo, former Chairman of the NC Parole Commission. A while back Columbo wrote a letter to current Governor Michael Easley, which reads in part as follows.

My interpretation of the criminal justice system leads me to conclude that once an inmate has reached parole eligibility he has served the penal aspects of his sentence and what should be determined at that time is whether if paroled he will be a danger to society. It is highly unlikely that this 80-year-old man would become such a danger. Because of [Frank Wetzel’s] advanced age this individual obviously does not have many years remaining, has a home within which he can reside, and a wife who awaits him. I ask you, Governor Easley, to take the financial and physical burdens of incarceration off the State and its taxpayers, and commute his sentence.

The Petition for Clemency of which this letter was a part was sent to Governor Easley on December 18, 2002. The Petition was unsuccessful.

Frank Wetzel’s case is scheduled to come before the Parole Commission 21 January 2004. He has served his time. His release would pose no threat to anyone. If Frank Wetzel dies in our prisons, this will not be a victory of justice. It will represent the triumph of politics. Which is exactly what will happen if too few people insist on a better outcome.

Frank Wetzel (above) died in prison at the age of 90 on July 21, 2012.