How a pair of housewives fought to get three innocent men out of jail
By KEVIN RAUCH
For The Express
RENOVO — Local first-time author Donna Clemente recently published a book, “To Prove Them Innocent,” a behind-the-scenes story of Donna and her friend Neady Sockman as they took on the judicial system to prove that three men sentenced for rape were wrongly convicted, sentenced and spent years behind bars before a national outcry freed them four years later.
The author is clear that the book is written from her view only, and she would never try to say what anyone else experienced throughout the ordeal.
In a twist of irony she was encouraged to write the book by former 20/20 producer Rob Wallace-whose national spotlight on the case in 1992 helped to blow the case wide open. The book was a result of Wallace encouraging Clemente to tell her story. It was Clemente’s endless phone calls and years of persistence that got Wallace to come from his New York studios to Renovo.
The book almost didn’t happen. Clemente had never given it serious thought until 2015 and was quite surprised that all of the investigation files she and Sockman made were still around.
“Two different times I had basically thrown out the majority of our research, saying they were out and it was all over. But Tom had other ideas” Clemente says of her husband.
The couple moved from South Renovo in 2002 at which time Donna had set many of the boxes of documents in a dumpster, only to find them years later in their new home where her husband had taken them from the trash heap and moved them along with them.
The roles were reversed. Now is was Wallace encouraging Clemente to pen a book of their journey. Ultimately she was convinced, saying she wanted her plight to be her legacy for her grandchildren. And so she began the book in 2015 by reading everything she had accumulated nearly two decades earlier.
The story began on Oct. 4, 1986 on the streets of Williamsport where a rape occurred at 2:30 a.m. Three Renovo men — Chuck Nihart and brothers Jeff and Jerry Francis — would be charged with rape on Oct. 22 and about 17 months later they would be convicted of the crime and sentenced to prison.
Donna’s husband Tom was a childhood friend of Nihart. On the day they were sentenced Tom made a remark to Donna about having to help his friend. Neither Tom nor Donna realized on that March 1988 afternoon that the next 10 years of their lives would center on the injustice, and although it wouldn’t take much effort to see through the prosecution’s case, it would take a decade to be resolved. The only chance of overturning the conviction would require the local and national media to get the attention of Lycoming County courts.
Clemente’s book explains that she and Sockman immediately found not only holes in the prosecution, but also the blatant “lines were crossed”.
The book walks the reader through questionable photo arrays shown to the victim, ignored facts that the three Renovo men did not have access to the car that the victim explained in detail, that there were over 30 people who confirmed Nihart was at a dance in Hyner as the rape was occurring, and even claims that a couple of jurors slept during the alibi testimony.
The book’s details that not only was there no physical evidence, but it would be the defense begging for years to get DNA testing.
Clemente explains that once they knew the three men were wrongfully convicted neither she nor Neady could walk away, even though they were just two housewives who were becoming aware of the unfairness after the conviction was already made.
The next several years the book follows their journey of not only exposing errors but outright untruths.
The media would ultimately become the best way to expose the truths about the case that were being uncovered. Initially that would be no easy task.
Headlines in local papers in bold font read “Violent men on a weekend rampage,” as the case went to trial, so it’s a rather remarkable story to follow and see those same newspapers end up on the side of the convicted.
One such large assist from The Express came when Editor Chuck Yorks found a courthouse memo in which a Lycoming County district attorney and a detective made a trip to Boston where DNA fingerprint testing was being done in 1992 following the airing of a 20/20 report.
Clemente says in her book that the trip gave the DA and detective “unilateral access to evidence, thus placing its impartiality in question and raising the appearance of impropriety.”
A copy of the Yorks-provided memo can be seen in the book.
Still, it was the 23 minutes that 20/20 dedicated to the case on March 20, 1992, four years after the three Renovo men were convicted, that would be the sunlight to provide the disinfectant of the case.
Much of the prosecution’s case centered around two Philadelphia men’s recollection of the Oct. 4 date in which one of the men had an altercation with Nihart. Despite over two dozen witnesses testifying that they were with Nihart on that night at a dance at the Riverview Inn in Hyner, the jury chose to believe the two out of town men who said the encounter with Nihart was not the night that all the people from Renovo claimed.
Wallace and his investigation was able to obtain a meat receipt as well as time cards of where the employees worked. In a taped interview, the time cards and receipt were presented to the two Philadelphia men, who admitted they had the incorrect date and the people of Renovo were telling the truth.
The piece also interviewed two jurors, one telling the cameras that the witnesses “sounded rehearsed,” while referring to the nearly three dozen as “too many almost.”
Working together for four months afforded Clemente and Wallace a lifetime friendship, still talking often and including visits from Wallace to the Clemente home. The respect from what both did for the case is obvious, as both repeatedly offered the other credit for exposing the injustice.
“Donna had it in her mind that I was the one that could help, having seen other pieces that I had done to help free innocent people. She was tenacious in getting me on board,” Wallace said from his home near New York.
“She wasn’t an attorney. She wasn’t a family member so it was a hard sell for us to come out as it was expensive for us to do so,” remembers Wallace.
“She was so well informed and genuinely a good person. Donna is the reason that they got out of prison and it’s people like Donna who continue to do so to this day,” Wallace explained. “Wrongful convictions still happen. You wouldn’t think so because of where we are with DNA, but they do.”
One of the Philadelphia men told the cameras that the Wallace investigation showed more proof than the investigators, adding that the judge should have “got more proof.”
Rob Wallace is now an adjunct professor in a Washington think tank and to this day he uses the Nihart-Francis case to talk about wrongful convictions.
Although just two months after airing, the men would be set free, it would be five years later until the case came to an end. The only way of not having another prolonged trial was for one of the men to plead guilty to a lesser charge. Clemente was present and it was Nihart who would anguish in the decision and would eventually take the charge.
The author compellingly walks the readers through the tense moments of him pacing, deciding to put an end to the injustice for not only them and their families but a community that had rallied around them.
One witness who is mentioned in the book recently re-told the story in his own words while discussing the Clemente book. Twenty-three years later and he still slams his hand down on the table recalling that Nihart had to make such a decision, obviously remaining angry about the saga that began in 1986.
The events would lead to coverage by several other notable TV shows of the early 1990’s including the Phil Donahue Show, Geraldo and Sally Jesse Raphael.
“It’s sad to say, but if not for Rob Wallace or had Chuck not been at a dance where he had so many witnesses, they most likely would have served out all of the time and would be labeled ‘convicted rapists’ to this day,” Clemente says now, still showing disbelief so many years later. When asked just how impactful Wallace and 20/20 was, Clemente doesn’t hesitate. “Well they were out two months after the show aired,” she said.
Donna explains that she will never look at the justice system with complete faith ever again. She said the fact that there was never a “gotcha moment,” that cover ups continued to happen throughout the 10-year battle with the legal system, and she now knows that innocent people do end up in prison as the reason for her lack of faith.
The author explained several times that it took a perfect storm for her to write this book, noting that Sockman was just as involved with the case as she was. Donna’s husband Tom hired a publisher as a gift to his wife to write the book as the final “push” that she needed to document the story.
The amount of anger and despair in Clemente’s voice as she recalls the case that started over 30 years ago goes a long way in showing the compassion and frustration that she endures from the case.
Part of Wallace’s professional career centered on similar unjust outcomes, as seven total cases were overturned following his investigations. The former producer adds that the Nihart-Francis case may once again be viewed by not only the nation but the world. “I’ve talked to several people in Hollywood; this absolutely could still become a movie someday.”
Clemente’s book opens with a quote from an unknown author that she says she thinks of often and sums up exactly what she learned while working the case — “Arguably the biggest mistake of all is the one that our political and judicial authorities continuously make: they deny the possibility of error and completely ignore it when it occurs.”
(Chuck Nihart, Jeff and Jerry Francis are now all retired and living in the Renovo area.)