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After 21 years in prison, Tonawanda native exonerated for rape

For more than two decades, Town of Tonawanda native Brian E. Franklin endured one of the worst nightmares any police officer could imagine.

After a 13-year-old girl made a sexual assault allegation against him in 1994, he got arrested and lost his job with the police force in Fort Worth, Texas. The following year, he was sent to prison for 30 years to life after he was convicted of criminal sexual assault of a child.

But Franklin always swore that he was innocent, and now, the Texas courts have freed and exonerated him. He was released in prison in May, after an appeals court overturned his conviction. And on Dec. 16, after a second criminal trial in Fort Worth, a jury found him not guilty.

Franklin said he spent more than 21 years in prison – a grueling, heart-wrenching stretch of 7,700 days – for a crime he did not commit.

“I never gave up hope,” Franklin, now 57, told The Buffalo News in a telephone interview Friday night. “I always knew that God believed me, but I don’t know why he took so long.”

Franklin, who did much of his own legal work in getting the 1995 conviction overturned, estimated that he spent at least 1,000 hours doing legal research in prison. He said he does not want anyone to think that he got out of prison due to legal technicalities.

“I was innocent, and the jury saw that. I had proof, through witnesses and documentation, that I was not present at the time and the location where the alleged crime took place,” Franklin said. “I also had proof that I was somewhere else. I was not there and I did not do it.”

The overturning of Franklin’s conviction and this month’s acquittal has become a major story in Texas and has also been the focus of several national news reports.

Brian Franklin, right, being interviewed Dec. 16 by a Texas TV news reporter.

Franklin spoke to a News reporter from the Kerrville, Texas, home of his mother, former Tonawanda resident Irene Taylor.

The former police officer said he is convinced that the power of prayer played a role in his acquittal.

“Thanks to my family, I have had hundreds of people praying for me. A lot of families, entire churches were praying for me,” Franklin said.

“It is a great Christmas gift. I thank God,” said Irene Taylor, 83. “I cry a lot because I’m so happy.”

The story also captured the attention of some of his old friends from the Town of Tonawanda, including Peter Kates, who was one of Franklin’s closest friends from the age of 5 through high school and college.

“Brian and I were the best of friends. We grew up right down the street from each other. We played together every day. We went to the Brighton Elementary School, Franklin Middle School and Kenmore East High School together,” Kates said. “Brian always wanted to be a police officer. When I heard of his conviction, I kept saying, ‘This can’t be the guy I grew up with.’ It just never sounded like the Brian I knew.”

“I never believed he could be guilty,” added Kates’ mother, Suzanne Kates of Tonawanda.

According to court papers that ultimately led to Franklin’s exoneration, a 13-year-old girl accused Franklin of raping her in the backyard of her biological father’s home in March 1994. There was no DNA evidence, and there were no witnesses to the alleged attack.

“The conviction in 1995 was strictly based on her word,” said Brian’s brother and supporter, Paul Franklin, 52.

Now in her mid-30s, the accuser testified again in the trial earlier this month, repeating her claim that Brian Franklin had raped her. But this time, Franklin and his lawyers had new evidence to work with.

In 2002, Rose A. Salinas, who had been the lead prosecutor at Franklin’s 1995 trial, signed an affidavit saying she no longer believed Franklin was guilty. Salinas said that she would have “immediately dismissed” the charges against Franklin at the time of Franklin’s trial if she had known that the girl had given police “false information” about Franklin.

“I don’t believe” Franklin “got a fair trial,” Salinas concluded in her sworn 2002 statement.

At the first trial, according to court papers, the girl testified that she was a virgin, and prosecutors presented evidence of physical damage to her genital area. That evidence helped to convict Franklin.

But at the trial this month, she admitted that she had been molested repeatedly over an 11-year period by her stepfather. Those molestations, defense attorneys argued, would have caused the damage to the girl’s genital area.

According to media reports in Texas, the jury acquitted Franklin after just two hours of deliberations. Several different jurors offered kind words to Brian Franklin, his family and friends after the verdict, Paul Franklin said.

“One juror stopped his pickup truck truck outside the courthouse and told Brian, ‘From one human being to another, I’m sorry you had to go through this,’” Paul Franklin said. “After the trial, jurors seemed as happy as we were about the verdict.”

A story about Brian Franklin appeared on the front page of the Fort Worth Star Telegram May 5.

Why would the woman make false allegations against Franklin – who was a friend of her biological father – in two separate trials 22 years apart?

Brian Franklin said he has spent many hours wondering about that and has never solved the puzzle. He theorizes that the woman is emotionally disturbed and may have “transferred” her anger to him for bad things that have happened to her in her life.

Paul Franklin said he always believed in his brother, but something that Brian Franklin did in 2014 convinced him more than ever that he was innocent.

Prosecutors offered Brian a deal – if he signed a statement saying he was guilty, he would be released from prison with time served, and there would be no more trials. But he would be designated as a convicted sexual offender.

“If he had done that, Brian would have been set free, and he wouldn’t have to anguish over another trial for the next two years,” Paul Franklin said. “But Brian said no. He wasn’t going to admit to a crime that he didn’t commit.”

“For 21 years, I’d get up every morning, look at those prison bars and say, ‘What am I doing here?’” Brian Franklin said. “But I never felt like giving up. I knew that with God’s help, the truth would come out someday.”

What comes next for Franklin after more than two decades of Texas prison life?

Since his release seven months ago, Franklin has been living with his mother and working in a produce store. Now that the fear of ever going back to prison has been lifted, he is thinking about several possibilities – writing a book, returning to law enforcement in some capacity or studying to become a lawyer.

“One thing I do want is to help innocent people who are in prison,” Franklin said. “Over the years, I met others who like me were innocent. I’ve seen many of them give up. They didn’t have the faith or the family support that I had.”

He said he is now deeply in debt from legal fees, and he has set up a page in his name, in hopes of getting donations. Franklin also plans to petition the state of Texas for a “declaration of innocence.” If successful on that effort, he will be eligible for financial compensation from the state.

Franklin said he truly appreciates the unwavering support he got from his mother, his brothers Paul and Darrell, his sister Sherrie Boyer and other family members and friends. He is sad that his father, Kenneth Franklin, a former Buffalo Public Schools principal, did not live to see the day he was released from prison. Kenneth Franklin died in 1998.

“Every year for the past 22 years, my mother would get a Christmas card from the Franklins saying, ‘There is still hope,’” Peter Kates said. “I give the family a lot of credit for keeping that candle burning for 22 years.”

A 1977 graduate of Kenmore East High School, Franklin moved to Texas more than 30 years ago to find work in law enforcement. He said he still has many fond memories of growing up in Western New York, including watching the Bills, Sabres and old Buffalo Braves, worshipping at the Brighton Community Baptist Church, and playing hockey and football with his childhood friends.

“I still remember the Blizzard of ’77, but I don’t miss that,” he said.

Paul Franklin is now an architect in San Antonio, Texas. He said he is thrilled that his brother is a free man.

“I got him a special Christmas present,” Paul Franklin said. “A T-shirt that says, ‘Merry Acquitmas.'”

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