PORTLAND, Ore. — After he served nearly three decades as part of a life sentence for a murder conviction, Frank Gable is set to be released from prison.

A federal judge on Thursday ordered Gable must be released from custody unless the Oregon Department of Justice decides to retry him within 90 days.

Gable was convicted for the 1989 fatal stabbing of Michael Francke, the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, outside the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital where he had parked his car.

The case was controversial from the start. When Gable was arrested, he claimed he was set up. Brothers of Michael Francke have proclaimed Gable's innocence. And another man confessed to the crime. But prosecutors disregarded that confession and Gable’s defense attorneys at the time did not use it as a defense for their client, as they could have.

“The jury never heard about that confession and that’s what the (federal) judge said violated his rights and why he should be released or be given a new trial,” said Jim Redden of the Portland Tribune. Redden is a journalist who covered the case 30 years ago and has never stopped following it. 

Gable filed multiple appeals since he was sentenced in 1991 to life in prison without parole. The Oregon Innocence Project in 2016 wrote an editorial in The Oregonian raising concerns about Gable’s conviction. 

Read more from The Oregonian about the controversy surrounding Gable's conviction

On Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Acosta ruled the trial court made a mistake by “excluding evidence of third-party guilt and that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in failing to assert Gable’s federal due process rights in the face of the trial court’s error.”

The judge also said Gable presented enough evidence “of a constitutional violation that probably resulted in the conviction of someone who is actually innocent.” The judge stopped short of saying Gable was innocent.

Redden feels a miscarriage of justice has gone on too long.

“I’ve always personal thought there’s an innocent man in jail and I’ve been surprised and disappointed by how long it’s taken to get to this point,” said Redden.

“Hopefully they’ll look at this and do the right thing and let him out, and not retry him.” 

Former Oregonian journalist and author Phil Stanford has been covering this case from the start as well. He's always maintained that Gable was framed, and says Oregon State Police and the Marion County District Attorney's Office were in on it. He believes the government had to find someone to put away to to prevent "any sort of honest investigation of the murder."

"The speculation from beginning, of course, is that corrections officials had him killed. At the time Francke was investigating corruption he discovered in his own department and he was getting ready to clean house. Then he was killed," Stanford told KGW. 

"They made up the evidence against him, they actually manufactured testimony," Stanford said. "[Gable] had very bad lawyers. The prosecutors convinced the jury to send him away for life without parole. And finally, after 30 years, he’s getting some sort of justice, if you can call it justice after being locked up for 30 years, most of your life."

Stanford doesn't believe the state has a case to retry Gable because there's nothing left. He says all material witnesses made up stories, and have since recanted. In addition, he says there was no physical or DNA evidence at the scene of the crime to connect Gable to the murder.

"They dreamed up all these stories and created a narrative around them and sent him away but it was a lie. They were all lies, cover-ups. Someone should pay but I don’t have much faith in the Oregon authorities to pursue the case any further," Stanford said.

Stanford, Redden and Francke's brothers hope one day the truth will come out and they can prove who murdered Michael Francke.

"There are a lot of leads in the official record that, once you go back over it, you can see they could have pursued, but they ignored them because they were afraid of where they would take them," Stanford said.

KGW asked the Oregon Department of Justice if they plan to retry Gable. They said they are reviewing the ruling and options moving forward.

The Francke family released the following statement: 

My first reaction was relief, and then a flood of emotion washed over me.  The events of January 17, 1989 have never been far from our thoughts on a daily basis.  That is hard for people to understand.  We have never been convinced that Frank Gable was guilty of the crime, never.  In observing the trial and the events inside and especially outside the courtroom, we were even more convinced that the State wanted this case over, and quickly, no matter how they achieved that end.  Machiavelli would be proud.

A careful reading of the Federal Public Defender Ms. Nell Brown’s brief will make it clear to even a person with no knowledge and little interest in the case that the State manipulated the process to convict Frank Gable. I’m not a great believer in conspiracy theories, but I do believe there was a small cadre, perhaps only two or three in total, who guided the process out of fear of what might be unearthed in the digging.

We became increasingly anxious as the months passed into years after the final arguments before Magistrate Acosta were made in November of 2016. Thankfully it is almost over.  It is now abundantly clear that Frank Gable had nothing to do with the murder. The diligence of the Federal Public Defender legal team of Ms. Nell Brown and Mr. Mark Ahlemeyer and their group of investigators should be honored.  Her brief was, in the words of a long-time lawyer friend, one of the best he has ever read.  Textbook and precedent setting according to another lawyer friend. Bravo!

Thankfully the waiting is over, and Frank Gable is a happy fellow for the first time since 1991. Where were you in 1991? 

No matter just now.  Time has eroded the case; principals, investigators, and witnesses are dead, vanished, or retired, evidence is in disarray, and the murder remains unsolved; but not in our minds. This announcement will be just a ripple on the stream.

We are happy in the extreme that the very real probability that Frank Gable will be released and his freedom is within sight. The State can no longer afford to manufacture a case built on lies and half-truths, and we trust that they will abandon this fruitless endeavor and concede that they convicted an innocent man.  They made a mistake. The sooner they do this, the better, and justice will be served! Most of all, we are happy for Frank and his family and friends.  

The State’s response in the coming days will determine the course; in the meantime, we celebrate years of determination by a few to see that justice was served.  God bless our Republic; God bless the USA.

E. Patrick Francke

Kevin B. Francke