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Convict in ’49 Greenwich murder believed to be nation’s longest serving prisoner

February 22, 2019 GMT

GREENWICH — The exact sequence of events about what happened on a warm summer night in 1949 at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club may never be known with certainty, but this much is clear

A night watchman by the name of Grover Hart, who once chauffeured Dan Topping, the co-owner of the New York Yankees around town, was shot and killed at the yacht club while making his rounds. He was hit by bullets from two different guns, one of them piercing his kidney. He died nearly two days later, after giving Greenwich police a physical description of one of the shooters.

Two petty criminals were eventually captured by police, and investigators linked them to the yacht club killing through ballistic evidence and stolen loot taken during the robbery — including six neckties bearing the insignia of the club. One of the shooters, George Lowden, of Stamford, quickly took a plea offered by the State’s Attorney, sparing him the electric chair, and initially gave evidence on the other suspect held in the crime, Francis (Frank) Smith.

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Smith, of Noroton, did not confess and repeatedly declared his innocence. He held out for a trial, in which he was convicted on the charge of first-degree murder, a capital offense, in a 1950 trial in Bridgeport. He came within two hours of being electrocuted in the death house at Wethersfield before his sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1954.

He is still paying the price today for the homicide 70 years ago — the other certainty in the long-running and controversial case.

Smith, inmate #16370 at the Osborn Correctional Institute in Somers, is incarcerated for the killing of the 68-year-old night watchman, and observers believe he is longest-serving inmate in the United States, and the oldest one in that category of long-serving prisoners.

While there are no official data bases that track such records, Smith is listed as the longest serving prisoner in the United States by Wikipedia. Mike Dash, a popular historian and author who holds a Ph.D and researches unusual topics in the U.S., has also called him “the longest-serving prisoner” in the U.S., if not the world, after completing his own study. There is a 94-year-old prisoner in Ohio, Arthur Schnipper Jr., who is five months older than Smith, but he has only been serving time since 1985 on aggravated murder.

Smith has been free for a short time: he escaped from jail in 1967, and he was released on parole for ten months before committing a violation that put him back behind bars in 1975. Aside from those two brief respites outside prison, his incarceration is now 70 years and counting, as he continues to live on meals that cost the taxpayers about $3 a day.

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Smith’s story in its own right is an engrossing glimpse into a life spent on the wrong side of the law, and a true-crime epic: a dramatic recantation on the witness stand, a claim of police coercion, a last-minute reprieve from execution and a jail break.

His punishment, and others like it, are also fueling an ongoing public-policy debate about incarceration, an aging prison population and the question of how justice is served when inmates become infirm old men. Smith’s case is especially compelling given the doubts raised about his guilt and the circumstantial evidence that convicted him. The lead investigator into the yacht-club murder told a state prison board in 1954 that he was certain he was not the man who killed Grover Hart. And Lowden, Smith’s alleged accomplice in the murder, recanted his story on the witness stand, saying he had been forced into it by law-enforcement authorities.

Smith’s incarceration has become a point of fascination to a number of observers.

Zachary Frey, a Cornell University senior and freelance writer from Greenwich who has been researching Smith and other long serving prisoners, said the case was an intriguing one, a mystery with nightmarish overtones if Smith was indeed innocent of murder. “I don’t know what the appropriate punishment should be — and there’s a lot of evidence he didn’t shoot Grover Hart — but he served it decades ago,” Frey said.

Barry Butler, who heads the public defender’s office in Stamford and once defended prisoners facing the death penalty in Connecticut, said the Smith’s longevity was surprising on a number of levels. “Highly unusual. Prison is a not a very healthy place,” he said.

Smith has long experience with jail cells and lockdowns, beginning his criminal record since at the age of 13. Stealing cars and property, he spent time in the state juvenile detention facility, Cheshire Reformatory, where he assaulted an officer and escaped for a time, landing him behind bars in a maximum-security prison.

In his 20’s, Smith continued his errant ways. Police said he and a crew of petty criminals were pulling burglaries, robberies and “club jobs” all over southern Connecticut before the shooting at the Greenwich yacht club on Steamboat Road.

The crime for which Smith was convicted was based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. A few days after the murder, two men were spotted in a gray Cadillac outside a roadhouse in Brewster, N.Y., the Hollywood Cafe, acting suspiciously, as if planning a robbery. The two vanished as state troopers pulled up, and they left the gray Cadillac behind. The big sedan had been stolen in Stamford, and inside it was a .22 caliber pistol, a Colt Woodsman of the kind used for target practice, which matched up with the bullets and casings found at the murder scene. The troopers also discovered yacht-club neck ties, and and jewelry taken from the lost-and-found box at the club in Greenwich. Also found were several boxes of expensive cigars taken from the Innis Arden Golf Club in Old Greenwich, a theft which had not been reported to police, with that club’s logo emblazoned on them.

A shirt with the name “Smith” imprinted on it by a laundry service gave investigators a strong lead. Witnesses gave authorities a description of Smith — five-foot seven inches tall, sandy blond hair, blue eyes and a scar on his face — and an extensive manhunt began. He was eventually picked up wandering in the woods around Wilton. He had hair dye in his possession, and he later told police he was planning on changing the look of his sandy-colored hair to evade capture.

Smith implicated his partner, George Lowden. After he was arrested, Lowden quickly signed a confession that he fired one shot, while Smith fired four, at the night watchman. Lowden re-enacted the killing at the Indian Harbor Yacht for Greenwich police. He was later paroled on 1966, after taking the plea offered by prosecutors.

Smith spent four years on death row after his conviction, narrowly averting execution on seven different occasions. The family members of the murder-victim regularly lobbied for his execution. “I see no reason why he should not be made to pay the penalty,” the murder victim’s daughter, Bertha Hart, told state authorities in 1953.

Smith was due to be executed June 7, 1954, four years to the day of his conviction. His head had been partially shaved to send the electrical current into his body. Two hours before he was scheduled to be strapped down in the death chair, the State Board of Pardons commuted his sentence to 25 years to life in prison after a three-hour hearing.

“Thanks be to God,” Smith shouted, according to a press report of the hearing.

Equally dramatic was the statement from a former major in the Connecticut State Police, Leo Caroll, the lead investigator in the case against Smith. “I’m positive he (Smith) didn’t kill Grover Hart. I’m not even sure he was at the murder.”

Smith was still protesting his innocence years after the killing and sought a new trial. In his favor: Lowden had recanted his statement that Smith was the other shooter. And even more dramatically, another petty criminal from Stamford who was serving time in an Alabama prison, David Blumetti, claimed he was the other accomplice, not Smith. Blumetti’s confession has puzzled judges and observers for years, and it appears it may have been an attempt to get out of an Alabama prison at any cost. Blumetti said Smith was dropped off in downtown Stamford before he and Lowden pulled the yacht-club robbery.

The State Supreme Court turned down Smith’s request for a new trial in 1954, calling Blumetti’s statements “unworthy of credit.”

While the court majority refused to order a new trial, one Supreme Court judge dissented, saying Smith deserved a new trial. Judge Patrick O’Sullivan wrote Smith was “still protesting his innocence of the crime of which a jury, relying exclusively upon circumstantial evidence, found him guilty, while another person not only has confessed to the commission of the murder but has placed Smith far from the scene of the crime.”

In another development, a witness for the prosecution, Edith Springer, who said she had seen Smith driving the gray Cadillac, came forward to say she had perjured herself at the trial and recanted her testimony.

Smith’s attorneys compiled a massive file, containing all the competing accounts of the case, and sought his release in the 1960’s. He was again turned down for an appeal in the federal courts in 1965. The decision was taken badly by the inmate, now in his 40’s.

Smith was considered a good prisoner and allowed access to the minimum security section of the Enfield Correctional Institution, the prison farm, where he was working as a mechanic. Wearing his green prison garb, he stole a truck from the Enfield prison farm on May 18, 1967, and drove to freedom, once again triggering a massive manhunt near the Massachusetts border with Connecticut. Smith was recaptured 12 days later in the Boston suburbs, and during that time, according to police in Barnstable on Cape Cod, he held up an office with a gun and stole $300. He had only three years left before he was eligible for parole.

Smith continually proclaimed his innocence in the Greenwich murder, even as a judge in Hartford added three to seven years to his prison term. His lawyer said his escape was “sparked by losing a habeus corpus action in the federal courts.” He was 43 when he was sent back to maximum security, and his hair was thinning.

His escape from Enfield was not his last taste of freedom. According to Richard Sparaco, executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Smith was out of jail for ten months in the 1970’s. But he didn’t last long outside the prison walls, and a violation brought him back behind bars.

“My records indicate he was released to parole back in 1975. He was out on parole from January 30 of 1975, up until he was returned from parole, with charges, on Nov. 10, 1975,” Sparaco said.

Smith was eligible for parole less than a decade ago, but it appears that the aged inmate has no desire to leave at this stage of his life. “The (parole) board approached him and offered him an application for parole, back in 2012, and he refused. An officer from the board sat with him, told him he was eligible. We did that — and he said he wanted nothing to do with it. He waived application for parole, and we have no correspondence from him since then,” Sparaco said.

While he did not know Smith or his particular story, Sparaco said it was not unheard of for elderly inmates to decline a release from custody.

“Someone like that I would think at this point, is extremely ‘institutionalized’. He has no sense of what the real world out there looks like. Institutionalized - it means he’s lived in a correctional facility since 1950, he only knows what life is like in a correctional facility, following the rules, being told what to do every hour of the day. That’s the term, institutionalized,” the parole official said.

Smith has not been a model prisoner, for all his longevity. The inmate has racked up numerous violations on his record, incurring 20 “disciplinary reports” all told, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections, Karen Martucci. In 1990, his last disciplinary action, he was written up for assault on another inmate. He was 66 at the time.

Martucci said it appeared that Smith was indeed the oldest in the state system — “I have seen some folks in their 80’s. 94 I can’t recall,” she said. The facility at Osborn was geared for older inmates and has an infirmary on-site. She said his medical and physical condition could not be disclosed, due to confidentiality regulations.

Smith did not respond to a letter and questions addressed to him at the Osborne prison sent last month, with a self-addressed stamped envelope. He has not authorized a visit from this newspaper.

While his state of mind and health can only be guessed at, judicial observers and experts say prisoners like Smith raise questions about the costs of lengthy incarceration, and the utility. In an development that has law enforcement experts puzzled, the prison population is actually seeing more inmates with gray hair.

“The aging prison population is growing, even while the prison population itself is decreasing slightly over the years,” said Leon Digard, a researcher on prisons at the Vera Institute of Justice, a public-policy think-tank.

Longer sentencing given out in the 1990’s may have something to do with it, as well as changes in parole policy, Digard said.

Prisoners who are in their senior years tend to have much more wear and tear on their bodies, as jail tends to age people at a much faster rate. “People in prison, 55 and above, tend to present much older, medically,” Digard said, “10 to 15 years older.”

Research indicates older prisoners also cost three to nine times more than younger prisoners to incarcerate, due to their medical problems. They can also be harder to manage, paradoxically.

“Prison is a very unhealthy place, and it’s not a easy place for older population to live - following orders, sticking to the routine, being in the right place at the right time - it’s increasingly difficult when people have hearing issues, or early onset dementia. And often those conditions don’t get diagnosed, and can lead to people getting longer disciplinary records. And it makes it harder to get parole. That can keep people in the system longer,” said Digard, senior research editor at the organization which examines justice and incarceration issues.

Aside from practical considerations, Digard said there was an ethical quandary with prisoner who have been in jail for decades, or more than a half century. One school of thought said long sentences are necessary to instill respect for the law, and make the guilty pay for committing horrendous crimes, decades after they were committed.

“It’s hard to see what incarceration is serving at that point,” said Digard, “There’s little risk to public safety, people in their 90’s are very little risk to anybody. In terms of retribution, once someone has reached the 90s, for a crime committed in the 1940’s, the chances even fully remembering the crime seems limited. And the amount of time between the offense and the punishment is so vast, there’s little connection between the two, except for the individual.”

But housing options for aging ex-convicts are very limited, and many nursing homes won’t accept them. Aging inmates have often outlived family members who may take them in.

Butler, the Stamford public defender, said the public rarely contemplated what a life behind bars really meant. “A lot of times, I’ve had clients tell me, ‘Butler,’ I’d rather get the death penalty than spend the next 60 years behind bars. It is severe,” he said.

“At one point, is it necessary to keep someone locked up forever for a life sentence?” asked Butler.

It’s a question Smith must have asked himself.

rmarchant@greenwichtime.com