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Serious Questions Raised about Catholic Evangelist

Russell Ford 004


Mark Gordon - published on 05/23/13

We investigate Russell Ford’s claims and what the evidence reveals

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By any reckoning, Russell Ford – “Russ,” as he prefers to be called – has an extraordinary story to tell. Born in 1957, he was raised in Missouri, the son of nominally Christian but non-practicing parents. Early in high school, Ford became a drug addict and wrestled with suicidal thoughts. During this time, by his own admission, he had his first brush with the law—a problem with a girl that sent him out of town for two weeks. 

Then, one evening in 1973 he made his first profession of faith in a Southern Baptist church and became something of a preaching prodigy. During the remainder of high school, Ford preached “in everything from small country churches with 30 people to football stadia and high school gymnasia,” and eventually enrolled in college intending to become a Protestant minister.

During college, Ford experienced serious doubts about the Southern Baptist doctrine based on his reading of Scripture. Eventually, he jettisoned his plans for the ministry and enlisted in the US Army, where he was trained as a military policeman. During this time he despaired of finding the truth and adopted agnosticism.

Following his military service, Ford moved back to Missouri and worked as a bounty hunter, then an insurance salesman. After a series of setbacks, he relocated to Alabama, where he had been trained as a soldier. Then in 1987, the 29 year-old Ford was arrested and charged with rape, sodomy and kidnapping. He pled guilty and was given a sentence of 25 years.  He wouldn’t emerge from behind bars until June 2012.

First Century Christian Ministries

In prison, one of Ford’s cellmates, Michael Mayola, introduced him to the Catholic faith. Ford resisted at first, but eventually submitted to nine months of intensive catechesis under Mayola’s tutelage. At the insistence of a missionary priest and with the encouragement of Mobile Archbishop Oscar Hugh Lipscomb, Ford completed his catechumenate, entered the Church in 1989 and became a lay evangelist. During the next 23 years, Ford built an impressive prison apostolate, First Century Christian Ministries (FCCM), focused on evangelizing and catechizing prisoners. By Ford’s count, hundreds of inmates either returned to or converted to the Church through his work. He claims to have at least 84 adult godsons as a result of his work.  Ford says he endured beatings and other deprivations at the hands of guards on account of his evangelism, including a harrowing incident in which officers deliberately broke three fingers on his left hand. He claims he was repeatedly threatened and attacked by other inmates, notably members of a Satanist coven who planned an ambush but were supernaturally blinded before they could kill him.

During his years in prison, Ford built an impressive network outside the walls. With the help of a former defense contractor from Virginia, Joseph Strada, FCCM was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Ford also established relationships with many Catholic luminaries.  Long before he walked out of prison, Ford had become a rising star in the popular apologetics wing of the Catholic media. 

Ford Appeals His Conviction

Ford was originally charged with abducting a woman, forcing her into his car, holding her against her will for several hours and repeatedly raping her. The prosecution’s case appears to have been strong, although Ford now disputes some of the details.  A later court document, obtained by Aleteia, outlines the government’s case against Ford at the time:

The victim gave a physical description of the perpetrator who had raped her. The victim gave a description of the automobile that the perpetrator used to commit the rape. The victim gave a description of the physical objects in the interior of the vehicle that was used to commit the rape. Mr. Ford was stopped by law enforcement driving the vehicle that matched the victim’s description. The physical items in the interior of Mr. Ford’s vehicle matched the victim’s description. Mr. Ford matched the physical description given by the rape victim. The rape victim positively identified Mr. Ford in a photo line-up. The rape victim was interviewed by an investigator and was specifically asked about tattoos and the rape victim stated she did not observe any tattoos on the perpetrator. The rape victim’s hair was recovered and identified from the interior of Mr. Ford’s vehicle. Mr. Ford’s pubic hairs were isolated and recovered from the victim’s pubic hairs. Mr. Ford had no confirmable alibi for his whereabouts during the hours of the repeated rape of the victim. Mr. Ford declined to give a statement to the police.

Ford, who was represented by a public defender, eventually pled guilty to the rape charge and accepted a 25-year sentence. The sodomy and kidnapping charges, which together with the rape might have resulted in a life sentence, were dropped. Ford was incarcerated in the Alabama state prison system and served his sentence without appeal for 19 years.

That all changed in 2006.  By that time, a Montgomery criminal defense attorney, Raymond J. “Corky” Hawthorne, was representing Ford, assisted by his paralegal, Marshall Pickard. Late in 2006, Hawthorne petitioned the Alabama Circuit Court for Calhoun County seeking relief from sentence on Ford’s behalf. The petition claimed that new evidence had been uncovered which established Ford’s “actual innocence.” Specifically, Hawthorne said he had a sworn affidavit from a witness who claimed that the rape victim had told police that her assailant had “numerous tattoos covering his body.” In view of the fact that Ford had never been tattooed, the petition insisted that Ford “should not have received the sentence which he received, which sentence should be vacated as requested in this petition.”

In 2007, while the petition was still pending, Hawthorne filed a motion for a modification of Ford’s sentence on the grounds that he had been a model prisoner. Letters of endorsement from various Catholic leaders accompanied the motion, but both the petition and the motion were denied by the Alabama state appeals court in early 2009, as was an appeal based on the fact that the physical evidence in the case had been destroyed one year after Ford pled guilty, a standard Alabama procedure in cases where no direct appeal of a conviction had been filed.

Ford took his case to a federal district court in Alabama. He petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus claiming that the state courts had violated his constitutional rights by refusing to reconsider his conviction based on the “new evidence,” as well as by the district attorney’s destruction of physical evidence in the case. The Federal District Court denied the petition for habeas based on the amount of time that had expired between conviction and appeal, but it did grant Ford a “certificate of appealability” (COA) which said that he had “made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right with respect to his claims related to newly discovered evidence and alleged destruction of evidence.”

Ford’s attorneys immediately appealed the District Court’s decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Circuit Court ruled that given the District Court’s denial of habeas, it was inappropriate to grant Ford a COA on the underlying constitutional claim. The 11th Circuit Court vacated the COA and remanded the issue back to the District Court for consideration of whether a COA should be granted on the narrow question of timeliness.  But Ford’s attorney’s challenged the Circuit Court’s decision by petitioning the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari. In other words, they asked the Court to hear the case. Last year, a few days before Russell Ford completed his 25-year sentence, the Court ruled. Petition denied.

Freedom, But Troubling Questions Remain

Ford walked out of prison a free man on June 19, 2012. Soon after his release, he left Alabama and returned to his home state of Missouri, settling somewhere in or near the town of Doniphan. He continued his work with FCCM, developed an impressive website, and began leveraging his extensive network of Catholic contacts to line up speaking and media engagements. According to Ford, the focus of FCCM is now three-fold: the traditional prison ministry, the establishment of transition centers for prisoners coming back into free society, and a broader evangelization effort.

His level of activity hit a fever pitch this year, and in recent weeks he’s appeared on EWTN’s The Journey Home program and had a long interview published in Catholic World Report. In the next couple of months, he’ll be speaking at the National Shrines of St. Maximilian Kolbe (Marytown) and Our Lady of Guadalupe, and appearing as a guest on the radio program, Catholic Answers Live.

For all the bright prospects, there are troubling and serious questions about Ford, many of them created by assertions he and his legal team have made about his appeals. The day after Ford completed his sentence, Marshall Pickard, the paralegal employed by his attorney, issued a press release with the title, “Praise God for Russ Ford’s Exoneration.” In the release, Pickard claimed “The Federal District Court of the Northern District of Alabama issued an order in 2010 which recognized that ‘Russ’, as he prefers to be called, made a showing of innocence.  This order has been left standing by a final decision of the United States Supreme Court.” But that is not true. As noted earlier, the District Court did issue a COA – a certificate of appealability – based on its assessment that Ford had “made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right with respect to his claims related to newly discovered evidence and alleged destruction of evidence.”

At best that simply meant that Ford had met the minimum threshold for appeal. The granting of the COA did not even remotely imply a definitive judgment about the nature of the “newly discovered evidence” or the probable impact of that evidence on a jury if the case had gone to trial. Nor did it represent a final judgment about Ford’s claim that he had been denied due process by the state’s destruction of physical evidence. And in any case, the COA was specifically vacated by the 11th Circuit Court on an appeal of the District Court’s denial of Ford’s habeas petition, a judgment implicitly upheld by the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Ford’s case, which is why Ford and his attorneys never returned to Federal District Court on appeal.

Still, Ford and his supporters continue to construe the Federal District Court’s original ruling as something it is not. In his The Journey Home interview, for instance, Ford said that “Five days before I was released the US Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that said I was innocent.” And he sat silently nodding when host Marcus Grodi later commiserated that Ford’s conviction was for “something that the government has now recognized you had nothing whatsoever to do with.”

The Catholic World Report (CWR) interview, released last week, is even more problematic. In it, Ford reiterates the claim that “the federal district court said that I’d made a showing of my innocence …” He goes on to say that, “the U.S. Supreme Court denied my petition, but in such a way that they allowed the lower court ruling that I’d shown my innocence to stand. That came just five days prior to finishing my 25-year sentence.”

Again, there has been no ruling by any court that Ford has “shown” his innocence. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s denial of Ford’s petition in effect upheld the 11th Circuit Court’s original order, which revoked the District Court’s granting of a COA on Ford’s substantive claims.

Ford goes on to say , “this [the Supreme Court’s ruling] allowed us to file back into the original sentencing court in Alabama to ask for a declaration of innocence and to have my criminal record expunged.” But a review of the criminal and civil record in the Calhoun County Circuit Court, the court with original jurisdiction in Ford’s case, reveal that no further petitions or motions have been filed. From the point of view of the State of Alabama, including the “original sentencing court,” Ford’s case concluded with a Certificate of Judgment, noted in the case log on June 12, 2009, the date his final appeal through the state court system ended in failure.

In the CWR interview he goes on to relate that “we were recently told the judge plans to vacate my conviction, grant the decree of innocence, and expunge my record sometime this month or next month.” Needless to say, judges don’t simply grant decrees of “innocence” with or without appeal, and they certainly don’t announce their plans ahead of time to petitioners. An honest assessment of statements like these leads one to conclude that Ford is either receiving very poor legal advice, or that he has deliberately misrepresented his case in order to reinforce the impression that he has been the victim of injustice, a fact which has not been proven.

So, if Ford’s appeal had been heard on the basis of the new evidence, or if a trial had been ordered, would his conviction have likely been overturned? It is impossible to know, of course, but consider the nature of the new evidence from which all of his appeals sprung. Nineteen years after the fact, a witness came forward and told Ford’s attorney that at the time of the investigation the victim told police that her assailant had tattoos “covering his body.” This is “hearsay:” a third-party (or even fourth-party) heard someone say something. Hearsay evidence is routinely disallowed in judicial proceedings, especially in criminal cases. Even if it were allowed, the key difficulty is that the victim is no longer available to confirm or deny the assertion. Moreover, the prosecution claims that the question of tattoos was raised with the victim at the time and that she indicated that her assailant had none. Would this new evidence have outweighed all of the other evidence collected by the state? Would it have outweighed the fact that Ford pled guilty, thereby circumventing his own right to a trial? Again, there is no way to know, but it seems highly unlikely, which could be why all of the state courts of appeals denied his various petitions and motions. 

There is one last resort that Ford and his legal team are pursuing. The State of Alabama has a panel, the Alabama Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration, set up as a “method of compensating certain innocent persons who have been wrongfully incarcerated by the State of Alabama.” The committee operates under the auspices of the state’s Division of Risk Management. A claimant must demonstrate his innocence by showing that his conviction was “vacated or reversed and the accusatory instrument dismissed on grounds of innocence,” or by showing that “the accusatory instrument dismissed on a ground consistent with innocence.” Ford is appealing to this panel on the second basis, claiming that the Federal District Court’s COA amounts to a dismissal of his conviction “on a ground consistent with innocence.” As a criminal attorney remarked when I ran this scenario by him, “This is what we call a legal Hail Mary’ pass.”

Without regard to any future ruling by the Alabama Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration, where are we today? I put that question to Ford’s spokesman, Marshall Pickard, in a recent phone conversation. I asked, “Isn't it fair to say that Ford stands as a convicted rapist and registered sex offender, and that no court has ever thrown out his conviction, much less declared him to be 'innocent,' despite his own claims to the contrary?" Pickard confirmed that despite his efforts that is exactly where the case of Russell Ford stands.

More Questions

Ford remains a registered sex offender in the State of Alabama, with an address in Doniphan, Missouri. Aleteia contacted the local diocese and received this statement from a spokeswoman: “The Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau does not list a ‘Russell Ford’ as a registered Catholic in our database that would indicate him as a registered member in any of our parishes. There has been no ecclesial approval issued by Bishop James V. Johnston for any apostolate associated with Russell Ford or ‘First Century Christian Ministries’ within the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Neither Russell Ford or ‘First Century Christian Ministries’ act under the auspices of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.”

Ford’s apparent lack of veracity about his legal case also raises questions about FCCM itself, including his record of conversions. In recent days, Aleteia requested that Ford provide us with independent access to a small sample of the “hundreds of spiritual progeny” he claims to have led to conversion. Ford refused to give us the names and contact information of any men who’ve been set free, claiming that to do so would violate their right to privacy. It was a strange response, particularly given the fact that Ford claims to have tracked the men he led to conversion and fixed their recidivism rate at 1.6%. With all those success stories, it seems odd that he couldn’t share one or two names, even on condition of anonymity, which Aleteia would have gladly offered them.

Later, Ford did provide us with the names and inmate numbers of seven prisoners currently incarcerated in the Draper Correctional Facility, but those men are difficult to reach. The Alabama state prison system doesn’t provide inmates with access to email or cell phones, and it is hardly an option to telephone the prison and ask for an inmate to be put on the line. That leaves postal mail, which takes time. We will undertake to contact the seven inmates Ford identified and report their responses in the future.

We have no desire to harm Mr. Ford. Nor do we question the sincerity of his conversion or the motives of the wonderful Catholic apostolates and individuals who have supported him, many of whom have had long associations with the writers and editors at Aleteia. On the other hand, In the Gospel of Matthew our Lord admonishes his followers to be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves”; and St. Paul, writing in First Thessalonians, counsels us to “test everything; retain what is good.”

In that spirit, we repeatedly offered Ford’s representatives an opportunity to answer the questions raised in our investigation. Overnight prior to the publication of this story, we received a statement.  In the statement, Ford’s legal team writes:

“… in order to set the record straight regarding his efforts prior to release, it should first be emphasized, in the words of his legal counsel who submitted his brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, that: ‘It should be noted that there has not been, at any level, an adjudication that Mr. Ford is innocent of the crimes of which he was convicted.’

‘Russ' legal team encouraged him to be careful in his comments about his legal matters following release. Regrettably, Russ has made statements that are not accurate and are indefensible.  Russ accepts full responsibility for his mistakes and shortcomings in this area. He does not seek to justify or explain away any of his grievous errors. He realizes that there is no acceptable excuse. He especially realizes that he was severely remiss in making any comment regarding legal proceedings which he admits that he does not understand. He only offers his repentance and prayers for forgiveness. He has resolved and promised to cease from making any further comments on his legal proceedings and status, and to confine himself appropriately to the work of the apostolate that His Majesty has commissioned at this time.”

The statement would have been fine if it had stopped there, but Ford and his legal team couldn’t resist a last nod to the “new evidence” that they believe confirms Ford’s “innocence.”

Notwithstanding, there is one primary matter of fairness regarding the issue of Russ' innocence. Russ' legal representatives did present facts in his legal proceedings that would have excluded and exonerated him prior to entering his plea if he had known about these facts.  One of the persons interviewed by police investigators in his case was told that the person who committed the offenses had tattoos.  Russ has never been tattooed. Most significantly, the State did not contest these facts which demonstrate Russ' innocence. Unfortunately, Russ did not find out about these facts in time and his petitions were denied due to the expiration of time limitations. Since these facts were uncontested, Russ' supporters considered the facts to be exonerating especially in light of the ruling of the Federal District Court on this matter.

Unfortunately, this paragraph is yet another example of the prevarication that has typified Ford’s statements since his release. Especially striking is the claim that “the State did not contest these facts which demonstrate Russ' innocence.” As we’ve shown, that is simply not true. In its response to Ford’s original petition for relief from sentence, the state of Alabama wrote, “The rape victim was interviewed by an investigator and was specifically asked about tattoos and the rape victim stated she did not observe any tattoos on the perpetrator.” Moreover, it is hardly certain, or even likely, that Ford’s “new evidence” demonstrates his innocence. First, as we’ve shown, the testimony by the new witness is hearsay, which suggests that it might not have been admitted as evidence even at the time he was charged. Second, the victim is no longer available to confirm or deny the claim made by Ford’s witness. Third, even if this evidence had been introduced during an original trial, it would have been weighed against the other evidence in the case, including the physical evidence, the victim’s identification of Ford, Ford’s lack of an alibi, and Ford’s guilty plea itself. Finally, the Alabama courts considered this evidence in Ford’s first petition for relief and did not find it convincing.

If Russ Ford admitted his guilt, his could be an amazing story of redemption, a demonstration that the mercy of God covers the worst sin. If he asserted his fundamental innocence while granting that it had not and might never be proven, his would be a remarkable story of grace and perseverance in the face of injustice.

But Ford has taken another route, misrepresenting the legal record and thereby encouraging sincere Catholics to believe that despite a declaration of innocence by the Federal District Court he has been the victim of a second act of injustice. That is a curious and troubling course indeed, and one that doesn’t bear up under scrutiny.

John Burger also contributed reporting to this article.

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