The State of Connecticut was prepared to kill Francis Clifford Smith eight times.
The eighth and final time, his head was shaved for the electric chair. A chaplain had come to sit with him the night before, and Smith talked to him about the same thing he always talks about — really, the only thing he ever talks about — his claim of innocence.
At 3 p.m. the next day, the Board of Pardons met to consider a last plea for clemency.
It’s not unusual for death row prisoners to go through many execution dates and stays. But this was only the second time Smith had come close enough for his head to be shaved, a ritual freighted with awful meaning for the men on death row at Wethersfield State Prison. It meant their remaining time would be measured in hours.
Some of the death row guards tried to be kind in the days leading up to an execution, joking or playing cards with the condemned men. Others were cruel. “I’d like to pull the switch on you, Smitty,” one told Smith, sliding him a tray of food.
There were six men on the Board of Pardons and Paroles on June 7, 1954, and they would have to agree unanimously for Smith to live. That day, Leo Carroll, one of the officers who had interrogated Smith when he was apprehended five years earlier, came forward and testified that he believed Smith was innocent. “I’m not even sure he was present at the murder,” Carroll announced, to general consternation.
Two hours before Smith’s scheduled electrocution, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. When he’d been sentenced to death — four years earlier, to the day — newspaper reports described the small, redheaded 25-year-old as defiant. But now, when the news reached him in the holding cell beside the execution chamber, he sobbed.
During the 1950s, Frank Smith was often front-page news. “The Smith case is without parallel in Connecticut history,” wrote Gerald J. Demeusy, a Hartford Courant crime reporter who covered Smith’s trial and appeals in dozens of stories. When Smith’s sentence was commuted, the newspaper’s switchboard was flooded with hundreds of calls from readers.
But in the decades since, Smith has slipped almost wholly from public view.
Now 98, Smith has clouded blue eyes and the smooth, childlike face of the very old. He’s so tiny that I could easily lift him. Bald at the crown, he likes to say that his hair never grew back after his head was shaved in 1954. He lives in a secure nursing home in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, a nice suburb of Hartford. It’s a low brick building hung with flowerpots, one of the only nursing facilities in the country for people coming out of prison.
With short interludes, including a two-week escape in 1967 and a brief parole in 1975, Smith served 70 years in prison. If you count previous incarcerations, plus the juvenile detention center he went to as an adolescent, and now the secured nursing home, he has spent closer to 85 years in the justice system. He is very likely the longest-serving prisoner, ever, in the United States.
“I’ve been locked up all my life,” he says.
Smith was in prison for the Battle of Stalingrad, and the liberation of Auschwitz. He was in custody during Elvis’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, the opening of the first McDonald’s franchise, the wars in both Korea and Vietnam, and the moon landing. He missed the introduction of credit cards and the September 11th attacks and the invention of the Internet, a development he regards with some suspicion. Almost everyone he knew before he went away is dead.
He seems to believe he is still in prison, though he was paroled to the nursing home in 2020. In fact, he could technically leave — to go get lunch, or visit one of the nearby towns — but someone would have to request permission and sign him out, which no one appears to have ever done.
“I used to have a cousin in Boston,” Smith says the first time I visit, in the summer of 2022. “I don’t know if he’s still alive.” When I offer to find out, he rebuffs me gruffly.
“I don’t want to embarrass him,” he says. “Who would want to admit they’re related to someone with my conviction?”
This is what happened: Early on the morning of July 23, 1949, two men broke into the Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, Connecticut, a stately white building jutting into Long Island Sound. The pair shot and killed a night watchman named Grover Hart. He was 68, with a wife and an adult daughter. Hart’s wife later said her husband was a hard-working person who had “never hurt a soul.”
The motive for the break-in, police determined, was robbery. But the yield was meager: an unspecified amount of jewelry, six neckties with the club’s insignia, some tie clips, the club manager’s hat.
As Hart was dying, he told police that one of the men was small, and wore a bandanna over his face. Police knew Smith, and immediately suspected him because he had been known to sometimes wear a face covering.
The day after the murder, police in New York found the stolen goods in a gray Cadillac — also stolen — and, relying on witnesses, connected the car to Smith and another prolific Connecticut criminal named George Lowden. Lowden took a plea deal, implicating Smith, and was convicted of murder in the second degree. Smith, whom police found hiding in the woods with a bottle of hair dye, claimed he was innocent. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by electrocution.
Each of these reversals was enough to grant Smith a reprieve from the electric chair, but none earned him a new trial.
The evidence was tangled, with almost all of the major players changing their stories over time. Lowden refused to testify against Smith at his 1950 trial, claiming he had been beaten into giving his previous statement. In 1951, Edith Springer, one of the witnesses who said she saw Smith and Lowden together in the stolen Cadillac, tearfully recanted. Then, stunningly, an Alabama prisoner named David Blumetti claimed that he, not Smith, had been the second shooter. Last came Leo Carroll’s appeal to the Board of Pardons, hours before Smith was to be executed.
Each of these reversals was enough to grant Smith a reprieve from the electric chair, but none earned him a new trial.
After his death sentence was commuted to life in prison, Smith was moved from his 6-by-8-foot cell on death row, a white-walled corridor guards called “Segregation” and prisoners called “Siberia.” Being in the general population was better than death row, where the lights were on 24 hours a day and Smith would bicker endlessly with the serial killer Joseph Taborsky in the neighboring cell. A memoir by a guard describes food infested with worms, as well as scenes of violence and gang rape.
Smith focused all of his attention on proving his innocence. He stole legal books from the library and hid them in his cell. He filed appeal after appeal. He wrote out, longhand, a book-length petition for a new trial.
It all went nowhere: A judge who denied Smith a new trial wrote that Blumetti’s confession was “unworthy of credit.” He posited that conditions were so bad in the Alabama prison that the confession could be a ploy to take his chances in Connecticut instead. Of Springer, the judge wrote that she, like Blumetti, was a “degraded character.”
By 1967, Smith’s appeals were exhausted. By then, he had a job in prison. Previous stints — as a window washer, clerk, and carpenter — were somewhat undistinguished, according to work records. But transferred to the auto repair shop, Smith seemed to like it. “Has acquired a measure of knowledge and skill in the field of automotive mechanics,” noted a report that ranked his cooperation as “excellent.” Shortly after that report was written, Smith stole a truck and escaped. After a two-week manhunt — during which he briefly returned to the front pages — he was recaptured outside of Boston and brought back to prison. He would have been eligible for parole in three years.
Even now, Smith seems to live perpetually in the time of his trial. He has mild dementia, and doesn’t always recall what he did a day ago. But he remembers his public defenders, members of the jury, who said what and when. He can’t stop replaying these details for anyone who will listen. It’s a habit he’s apparently maintained for seven decades. In 1953, a death row chaplain told the Courant he spent the long night before one of the aborted executions with Smith. Even on the verge of death, the chaplain said, “He kept going over and over his case.”
All these years later, he’ll say to me:
I’m in here on no evidence at all.
They never had a case against me.
I’m innocent under Connecticut law.
I asked one of the nursing home administrators if my visits were too upsetting, bringing up terrors from a lifetime ago, making Smith relive the days before his scheduled executions.
No, she told me. Being listened to “is happiness for him.”
But in our conversations, he would return again and again to the electric chair, still an object of primal, almost talismanic fear all of this time later. “It cooks you,” he would repeat, folding into himself. “It cooks you.”
While the time of his trial is always within reach for Smith, the intervening decades are somewhere else, behind a curtain he won’t or can’t push aside.
Smith isn’t in the habit of personal disclosure, in any case. He does not have friends in the nursing home. “I keep to myself,” he says often. He doesn’t want to know what people were convicted of, and doesn’t ask. He says he didn’t have friends in prison either, and he isn’t exaggerating: “Minds his own business and has no associates,” reads one behavioral report from 1964. Smith waves every question about those decades away with an impatient, “It was prison” or “I don’t think about that.”
There are other questions he says he doesn’t think about: What would he have liked to have done with his life? I don’t think about that. Did he regret anything? I don’t think about that. What was his childhood like? I don’t think about that. Did he want a family? I don’t think about that.
Smith now spends most of his time in his room, watching TV. In conversations over the course of a year, the only person I hear him express something like friendship for is Tucker Carlson, the recently deposed Fox News host. “He’s my type of guy. We’re the same type,” he says, though he won’t say more.
I could see it, somehow. The grievance, the paranoia, the sense that things are stacked against you. That the system is broken. Except, of course, in Smith’s case, he might be right.
When I first learned about Smith, I wondered why he hadn’t been picked up as a cause by some group or other. A police officer who doubted if he was even at the crime scene? A confession from another man? A bafflingly long sentence? He seemed obviously worthy of attention. But then I met him, and it made sense.
Something often ties the people who are championed by such groups together: a self-possession, a facility with words, an ability to narrate one’s fall and redemption. They have a story arc.
So much of the justice system — from the trial to parole boards and jobs and support networks — requires you to be a storyteller. And at the same time, prison cuts you off from friends and lovers and work and all the things one needs to have stories to tell in the first place. Almost all of Smith’s adult life took place in captivity. If he has stories, they are not ones he cares to recall.
It’s possible to fill in things from Smith’s past from news reports and public records. He was born in Stamford, Connecticut, and later moved to the Noroton section of Darien, just over an hour’s drive south of the nursing home. His father was a roofer; census reports don’t list an occupation for his mother. His family attended his trials and appeals — his father begged the judge for mercy; one of his sisters collapsed in court, sobbing.
But even before his conviction in 1949, when he was 24, Smith’s life revolved around the justice system. “Frank Smith is a youngster. One of the kind that society has failed,” wrote the anti-death penalty advocate Aaron Cohen in the Courant in 1951. He was first sent to the Connecticut School for Boys, a juvenile rehabilitation facility, when he was 10 or 11. (“That’s embarrassing to me,” is all he’ll say when I ask about it.) From reform school, he was sent to an institution for older offenders. After his release, he was sent back for breaking and entering and auto theft. He escaped after attacking a guard, and then was sent to state prison. He was only three months into his parole from that institution at the time of the murder in 1949.
There are few punctuation marks in his life after that. There was the escape in 1967. He was paroled very briefly in 1975, but returned for violating terms of parole — he was charged with larceny and possession of dangerous weapons. Although he wasn’t actually convicted, it was enough to send him back to prison.
After that, public records suggest relative quiet. In the 1980s, his visitors began to taper off — sometimes he went years without one. Smith once got in trouble for stealing aspirin. Another time, bread. His last disciplinary incident on record was in 1990. The last two recorded visitors in prison were on Christmas Eve 1993, followed by someone — he doesn’t recall who — in 2013. In later years, he was confined entirely to the hospital wing.
‘I think it shows how somebody can get completely lost in the system and become so institutionalized that they lose their own identity.’
The truth is, Smith likely could have been out a long time ago.
In 2012, Smith’s file came across the desk of Richard Sparaco, then the director of planning, research, and development at the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles. When Sparaco read it, he stopped cold. Are you kidding me? he recalls thinking. Why is this guy still sitting here? Born in 1924. Sentenced in 1950. And last considered by the parole board in 1976? Could that be right? Mystifyingly, there were no records at all between 1976 and 2012, when Smith should have come up for parole every few years.
Sparaco sent a parole officer out to see Smith, but she was rebuffed. “He didn’t want anything to do with parole,” Sparaco says.
When I asked him about it, Smith denied that he didn’t want to be paroled. “That’s baloney!” he growled. Then his face softened and he admitted, “I don’t remember.”
There are a number of possibilities. Smith may not have understood what was happening in 2012; there’s no recording of it, and on the parole waiver form, obtained through a public records request, an officer wrote “inmate refused to sign.” He may have thought he was being tricked — he experiences flares of paranoia. He may have still been hoping for a total exoneration. Or he may have been afraid of having nowhere to go.
“Maybe he just thought that everybody was against him,” Sparaco tells me. “I think it shows how somebody can get completely lost in the system and become so institutionalized that they lose their own identity.”
It isn’t uncommon for people who have served extreme sentences to have misgivings about leaving prison. After his release, Johnson Van Dyke Grigsby, who served 66 years, asked to go back. Paul Geidel, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1911 and had served 62 years when he was eligible for parole in 1974, stayed in prison for an additional six years because he was afraid. “I can’t make it out there,” he told a reporter.
Experts on prison call this process “institutionalization.” When someone’s agency is absent for decades, even small decisions can be debilitating. Former prisoners often emerge with no money or connections. Other common side effects of long incarceration are hypervigilance and social withdrawal. The experience can be deeply lonely: A study in Sweden found that people recently released from prison are 18 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
It took years, but Smith was finally persuaded to apply for parole in 2020. In a recording of the hearing, he’s asked why he should be considered for release. He paused. “I’ve been sitting here for a long time,” he finally said, hoarsely. “I’m 95 years old.” He was paroled into the secure nursing home where he now lives.
In some ways, Smith is lucky. People who spend a long time in prison rarely live to an advanced age. Prison is bad for your health in basically every way: poor health care and nutrition, and high rates of violence, disease, and depression. Research suggests incarcerated men in their 50s exhibit health problems of men in their 70s; and one study found that each year in prison takes two years off of someone’s life expectancy. By that metric, Smith should have died several decades before his birth.
When elderly prisoners are released, they emerge into an unfamiliar world, and often find themselves on the street, in shelters, or back in prison. Many nursing homes will not accept people with records, and in some states nursing homes are legally required to run criminal background checks.
To address this crisis, the State of Connecticut solicited proposals from private companies for long-term care options for offenders. Where Smith lives, 60 West, was the winning bidder. There was massive opposition from the community, says Michael Lawlor, who was the state’s undersecretary for criminal justice at the time. The neighbors were “apoplectic,” he says. “There was really quite a scene.”
People were worried about falling property values and crime, even though the residents were often not people who could walk or even stand. “None of the horror stories that people envisioned came to fruition,” Lawlor says. “None of them.”
There will need to be many more homes like 60 West because the prison population is rapidly aging. Between 1999 and 2016, there was a 280 percent increase in the number of people 55 and older in state and federal prison, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. The federal prisons with the highest percentage of older inmates spend five times more on health care per inmate than those with the lowest percentage, according to a Department of Justice report. “Pretty soon, unless something happens,” Lawlor says, “prisons will basically be nursing homes.”
Despite what Smith says, 60 West is not a prison. He has his own room, with apricot-colored walls and a wide window. There is a patio outside where he can sit, though he doesn’t go out there. He has a reputation for grouchiness, and the nurses regard him with a kind of fond exasperation. (“We love him, even if he doesn’t always want to be loved,” one says.)
But Smith still thinks constantly about freedom. He hasn’t been out in public since the Ford administration, and he’s conscious of what people might think: that because of his age, because he’s been away so long, he couldn’t handle himself.
They’d be wrong, he insists. He’s adaptable. He grants that he doesn’t know what he’d find in the world outside — ”How could I?” — but he’d like to “go around town,” he says. (For him, “town” is always Stamford, where he was born.) Going around town would be enough.
Smith will turn 99 in September. He is conscious of time passing. It’s difficult to imagine what to want. Freedom, first and always, but what that could possibly look like at this point is hard to say. In the meantime, he has no choice but to sit and wait. “I just go from day to day as the circumstances present themselves,” he tells me.
Those things — hotels, fast-food restaurants, the rental car I was driving — would be as foreign to him as the surface of the moon.
Like the nurses, I came to regard Smith with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. He’s often agitated, conspiratorial. Sometimes, he is impossible to talk to, going on furious rants about his trial and snapping if I ask him to repeat something. This doesn’t seem to be a result of old age; in 1954, Aaron Cohen, the anti-death penalty advocate who had been working on his behalf, wrote, dryly, “Smith has repaid my efforts by numerous unkindnesses.”
But other times, he is plaintive in a way that makes me want, urgently, to take him out of there, take him anywhere. You look pretty today. You’re leaving? Come see me again. Call any time. Visit any time. Come back again soon. When I come, I often have to wait because he wants to get smart. He wears the same flannel shirts as my father.
Driving away, heading to the hotel or to get a sandwich, I’d think how easy it was for me to slip out of that building, but how those things — hotels, fast-food restaurants, the rental car I was driving — would be as foreign to him as the surface of the moon. I was an ambassador from someplace unimaginable.
A little less than a year after I began visiting Smith, I received almost 200 pages of public records I had requested from the Connecticut Department of Correction. In these documents, I could see more clearly the fluctuations in his moods and attitudes toward the world around him. Sometimes he got good behavioral reports, describing him as cooperative and hard-working. Other times, he seemed to suffer episodes of deep distress and paranoia.
At times, Smith seemed to believe that prison staff were scheming against him. In 1984, he accused an administrator of deliberately turning his family away. “I have checked the Gate House and you have not had a visit since 1979,” she replied, “and that was an attorney.”
Most disturbing was a single typed letter, sent from Smith to his sister 60 years ago. Private correspondence would normally be privileged, but this letter was apparently included in the file because he had a dispute with the prison censors over it. It’s the only piece of personal writing I have from him.
“I received your letter and your check and the check was plenty,” Smith began in the 1963 letter. “It was a life saver for me, and thank you. I guess that prety soon you and [name redacted] will be able to go swimming at the beach. Maybe you both might try a little surfing.”
Then, he gets to the apparent point: “I emphasized something in my last letter which you didn’t mention in yours, perhaps for your own reasons. I will mention the matter again.”
He begins to unspool a series of conspiracy theories, threaded with racial slurs: The United Nations was plotting to take away America’s weapons. He writes, “The Jew has been poluting the country with moral filth through the movies radio and TV” in a campaign to push Black men “next to the white woman.” People like them needed to band together to protect the country, he concluded. “Every person in this country who is white and Christian has a job to do.”
For months, I had been trying to figure out what was happening in Smith’s mind, aside from the trial playing over and over again like a reel. Was it this?
The phrase that rang in my head when I first saw Smith’s small, hunched frame had been T.S. Eliot’s, about some “infinitely suffering thing.” Now, I felt my sympathy turn off like a tap.
A few days after reading the letter, I drove down to see Smith again. It was one of the first warm days of spring, and the sky out his window was blue. He was in a good mood, more open than usual. I asked him about the letter: Did he remember writing it? Did he feel the same way now?
I didn’t really expect a satisfying answer, and I didn’t get one. He denied writing it, saying he doesn’t remember “anything like that.” And he might not — it was 60 years ago. “I got nothing against Black people and I got nothing against Jewish people,” he said.
I stayed awhile longer, listening to him talk about the trial and the electric chair — how your body was so hot afterward that the guards couldn’t touch it. As I walked out, I felt the familiar mixture of relief and sadness. Would I be the last person who ever visited him?
I still pitied him, of course I did. But my feelings, I realized belatedly, weren’t relevant. It is convenient — for the media, for defense attorneys, for criminal justice reform advocates — when people in prison are likable. But an error — an incredibly human error — is to apply our sympathy rather than our justice.
Because sympathy seems easier, until it isn’t.
I got into my car and drove the 10 minutes to Wethersfield, where there is a small historical museum with an exhibition about the old prison, which was torn down in 1967. There is a salvaged death row cell. Costumes for children to try on — judge, officer, inmate.
No one else was there. I walked around the small museum for a long time, reading signs and avoiding the thing I had come to see. It exerted an awful gravity from the corner of the room.
There, behind a discreet barrier, was the electric chair. A polished oak monstrosity, there are scratches in the arms where the men’s arms were bound. Nearby were displayed the accessories of death: the slippers, the small black cap.
Connecticut stopped sentencing people to death in 2012. But the chair hasn’t been used since 1960, when it killed its 18th man — Smith’s old death row neighbor, Joseph Taborsky, who left the world with a brisk, “Be seeing you.” Taborsky didn’t appeal his sentence, wanting to die rather than live a life in prison — a life like Smith’s.
After Taborsky’s death, the chair fell into disuse. Before it went to the museum, it was in storage for many years, sitting amid boxes of yellowing files at the Department of Correction Central Office in Wethersfield. No one knew what to do with it.