definition: red flag, something that provokes an angry or hostile reaction (Dictionary.com)
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, WSOCTV.com, 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 (WSOCTV.com, 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 WSOCTV.com 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.