In the spring of 1957, seventy-five-year-old Fred Ernest was badly beaten in his home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. A neighbor found Ernest lying in a pool of blood, and Ernest died soon after from his injuries. During the investigation into this crime, the fingerprints of Louis William Bennett, an alcoholic ex-convict who was a friend of Ernest, were found on Ernest’s front door. Less than two months after the crime, Bennett pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter in Ernest’s death and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
When he pled guilty, Bennett stated that he had been drinking heavily at the time and had struck Ernest in a fit of anger. In truth, Bennett had been drinking heavily and could not remember what had happened during the time the crime was committed, although he said he knew he did not commit the crime. He was afraid of a death sentence if he went to trial, so he pled guilty instead. He later recalled that he had once painted the door of Ernest’s home for him, explaining the origin of the fingerprints.
In early December 1960, Leonard McClain, a 34-year-old Texas prisoner serving a life sentence for murdering his landlady, confessed to the Ernest killing, providing details that convinced officials he was the true perpetrator.
Following McClain’s confession, Bennett was released from prison on December 21, 1960 with an indefinite leave of absence signed by Governor J. Howard Edmondson. After serving three years in prison, he was given a $5 bill, a bus ticket, and a new khaki suit at the time of his release. On January 12, 1961, he received a full pardon from Governor Edmondson.
- Meghan Barrett Cousino
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.