If You Shot a Man in Reno, Why are You in California State Prison?

Herein of "Folsom Prison Blues" and criminal jurisdiction.


In the classic "Folsom Prison Blues," Johnny Cash sings:

When I was just a baby
My Mama told me, son
Always be a good boy
Don't ever play with guns
But I shot a man in Reno
Just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowin'
I hang my head and cry

My friend Doug Shaker asks: Why, if he shot a man in Reno, is he, as he puts it in the prior verse, "stuck in Folsom Prison"—a California State penitentiary?

This sounds a bit like a criminal procedure exam question: Explain all the reasons why he could have ended up in California prison. There are many possible explanations.

I thought at first that this was pure poetic license—Cash needed "Reno" to rhyme with something else. But a look at the verse shows that's not correct (although it does provide a kind of false rhyme with "blowin'"). He could've used any two-syllable town name (with the emphasis on the first syllable—what the poets call a "trochee"): Merced, Fresno, Jackson, or even Tahoe. [Tahoe would be a good one—it borders Reno, leading to the intriguing possibility that the shooting took place right at the border, with the shooter in California and the deceased in Reno (or vice versa), leading to a nice jurisdictional battle between the two States over who can prosecute him and where he can be prosecuted.]

An alternative explanation is that he wasn't actually charged with a crime for having shot a man in Reno (just to watch him die); he's in California prison because of some subsequent offense committed in California, and he's just reflecting, as country singers are wont to do, on his evil life and evil ways.

And there's another geographical curiosity in the song. The first verse goes like this:

I hear the train a comin'
It's rollin' 'round the bend
And I ain't seen the sunshine
Since, I don't know when
I'm stuck in Folsom Prison
And time keeps draggin' on
But that train keeps a-rollin'
On down to San Antone.

I'm thinking: down to San Antone? A train a-rollin' from Folsom, which is just outside Sacramento, and ending up in San Antonio?

It reminded me of "The Great Western and Pacific Railway Company"—the stock market scam that is one of the great 19th century British novels, Anthony Trollope's fabulous "The Way We Live Now." The G.W.P.R.C. was raising money ostensibly for a railroad line from San Francisco to the Gulf of Mexico at Veracruz, though actually no one had the slightest intention of laying a single mile of track—the point of the enterprise was just to issue stock and to fleece the unsuspecting public.

To my surprise, though, it turns out that there is indeed such a line—the old Southern Pacific (now part of the Union Pacific Railroad Company), which ran a line in the 1860s from San Francisco to San Diego, and which was extended in 1883 all the way through San Antonio to New Orleans. So there you go.

NEXT: Rethinking the Unitary Executive

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  1. I always wondered about that too.

    Maybe he shot a man in Reno with a semi-automatic assault weapon, and fled over the border to Tahoe, where he was arrested and imprisoned for carrying a weapon illegal in California.

    1. Nope. Folsom Prison Blues, writ 1953, waxed 1955, before any “assault weapon” nonsense,

  2. 1. It was a federal offense because it was an agent killed.
    2. Nevada rents prison space from California.

  3. According this, Cash said he took “poetic license.”

  4. It has to be Reno, for two reasons:

    1) Flow of the line. Linguistically speaking, R and N are liquids and sonorants respectively, and easily trip off the tongue, unlike the hard stops in Tahoe and Merced, or the buzzing Z of Fresno. In addition, the short vowel of “in” extends easily into the long vowel of “Reno” ? they’re actually the same vowel ? and doesn’t require switching to a different place in the mouth.

    2) Cultural associations. Reno is the Biggest Little City in the World, where people like Johnny Cash go to get in trouble. Merced and Fresno are midsize county seats in agricultural country. And Tahoe ? well, if you think Tahoe fits into this line, why are you even listening to country music at all?

  5. 1. While in California, he hired a shady lawyer to pay the victim’s family hush money.

    2. Inexplicably, he secretly taped his conversations with this lawyer, in violation of California’s eavesdropping law.

    3. To pay the lawyer and the victim’s family, he took out a home equity loan and lied on the application about how the money would be used.

  6. CA Penal Law Section 790

    790. (a) The jurisdiction of a criminal action for murder or manslaughter is in the county where the fatal injury was inflicted or in the county in which the injured party died or in the county in which his or her body was found. However, if the defendant is indicted in the county in which the fatal injury was inflicted, at
    any time before his or her trial in another county, the sheriff of the other county shall, if the defendant is in custody, deliver the defendant upon demand to the sheriff of the county in which the fatal
    injury was inflicted. When the fatal injury was inflicted and the injured person died or his or her body was found within five hundred yards of the boundary of two or more counties, jurisdiction is in either county.

    Seems to leave several possibilities: He shot the man, but he wandered into the CalNeva Lodge in Lake Tahoe and dies at the bar would seem to be a possibility, although then to watch him die Mr. Cash would have had to follow him from Reno to Tahoe.

    1. But maybe he failed in his objective to watch the death. Realizing the wound was not immediately fatal, he fled to California, where he was nabbed.

    2. Actually the pertinent statute is Penal Code section 778a, which provides that if a person, “with intent to commit a crime, does any act within this state in execution or part execution of that intent, which culminates in the commission of a crime, either within or without this state, the person is punishable for that crime in this state in the same manner as if the crime had been committed entirely within this state.” Under this provision, “California has territorial jurisdiction over an offense if the defendant, with the requisite intent, does a preparatory act in California that is more than a de minimis act toward the eventual completion of the offense.” (People v. Betts (2005) 34 Cal.4th 1039.) Section 790 refers to jurisdiction between 2 California counties. Under section 778a, if you kidnap a man in California with the intent to kill him and then shoot him in Reno you’re guilty of murder in California.

      1. “I dragged a man to Reno, I will not tell a lie
        I shot him in Reno just to watch him die.
        Commencing the crime in California, I was subject to their criminal code, don’t you see
        And this scenario does make me look like a sadistic SOB.”

  7. And don’t forget San Antonio, New Mexico, birthplace and home town of Conrad Hilton.

  8. He doesn’t that he’s in Folsom because of a conviction for the Reno killing, so any connection between the two facts is speculation.

    My speculation is that the Reno guy was the first of a spree, and by the time he was killing people in California, he was getting sloppy enough to get caught.

    Or, maybe, Mr. Cash’s lawyer convinced him that if he confessed to an unsolved murder in CA, they wouldn’t extradite him to NV (and a capital trial there.) As long as he’s stuck in Folsom prison, he’s safe from Nevada justice. If CA springs him, NV will be there to collect him, and that’s why he cab’t be free… he’ll just move a little farther down the line.

    1. Good guess, but CA had the death penalty at the time, too. I think they may even have it again, now.

      1. They do have a death penalty now.

        1. But they plea bargain it away if the only evidence of your guilt is your confession.

  9. The Reno line is the follow up to his reflection on his mother’s warning about playing with guns (obviously, the old gal hated freedom), not the crime that landed him in Folsom. His crimes in California go unmentioned, but we already know he is not a Responsible Gun Owner (since Reno, anyway), so they were probably mur-diddly-urdler related.

    Plus, Reno works better lyrically.

  10. Anthony Trollope’s fabulous and anti-Semitic “The Way We Live Now.” One example Trollope gives of the decline and impending fall of western civilization is that the Prince of Wales is observed under the same roof as a Jew. In “real life”, the actual Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) did spend a lot of time with wealthy Jews who undoubtedly “lent” him money on very generous terms. As a result, Edward was sometimes referred to as the “king of the Jews”.

  11. Joe Nacrelli used to teach a bar review course for the DC bar exam. His knowledge of the law was, to be honest, somewhat limited, but he claimed to have a good idea of the type of questions they’d ask. Whatever the subject of the question, he emphasized that we must listen to the question.

    So when lecturing about conflict of laws, he posed the question which jurisidiction’s law would govern if someone was in a car accident in DC but was thrown over the border into Maryland. DC’s law would govern, he said. Someone raised his hand and asked, “Which law would govern if he had the accident in Maryland and was thrown over the border into DC?” Nacrelli was ready with his answer: “You did not listen to the question!”

    1. “The Mishna states: If a fledgling bird is found within fity cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it. Rabbi Jeremiah asked: If one foot of the fledgling bird is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law? It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the House of Study.”

      1. I would have thought the answer to Rabbi Jeremiah was easy; use the King Solomon answer!

  12. You really think it would have flown if he said, “I shot a man in Berkeley…”?

  13. As a long time resident of Reno, who travels past the Folsom Prison often, this has plagued me (maybe “plagued” is a tad overstating the case, but I digress).

    The California state line is mere miles from Reno and it does not demand that you venture all the way to the CalNeva to cross over. You could, I suppose, shoot a man in unincorporated Washoe County (Reno post office) and have him fall dead in Verde, California, a distance measured in inches. You could run him down from Reno into the foothills or anywhere the boundary varies, again by inches. I can see California (and feel its income taxes) from my window. Lastly, you could do it on a train in Reno and have him die on the way to Sacramento.

    That all said, Cash stated something to the effect is that it, “sounded good.” He had never been to either Reno,, nor Folsom, when he wrote that song, which, as I understand things, was in Germany, in the service. (I think the dirty water in the movie at the prison was poetic license as Folsom Prison sits on the Folsom Lake and its water is pristine snow melt.

    P.S. I had the very good fortune to meet and watch Mr. Cash play from the side of the stage in 1995 as a member of the Highwaymen. I was too tongue tied to ask any questions and only babbled when he shook my hand (I broke many traffic laws driving from Reno, to make that show.) It is, without doubt, one of the high points of my life.

    1. Wikipedia: “Cash was inspired to write this song after seeing the movie Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) while serving in West Germany in the United States Air Force at Landsberg, Bavaria….”

      I surmise that Cash’s knowledge of the geography of Folsom Prison and Reno came from that movie.

      Take the movie Krakatoa, East of Java. Krakatoa is so far east of Java it is actually west of Java. The Writer’s Guild manual for screenwriters is heavy on protagonist/antagonist conflict drama, but light on fact checking that gets in the way of The Truth.

  14. Reno is a car made by Suzuki. So it’s “I shot a man in [a] Reno” but the a was dropped to match the cadence.

    1. I assume a Reno is a small car, driven by short people, and goes beep, beep, beep. Good enough reason to shoot the driver.

      1. Were you the guy in the Cadillac who got passed by a Nash Rambler stuck in second gear?

    2. The Suzuki Reno is the Daewoo Lacetti introduced in 2002.
      Folsom Prison Blues, writ 1953, waxed 1955. No way, unless that Reno was highly customized by Dr. Emmett Brown.

      Timeline, people, criminal investigation 101.

  15. The Union Pacific trackage from New Orleans to San Antonio was originally built by the New Orleans, Opelousas and Great Western Railroad, later acquired by the Southern Pacific. Incidentally there’s another section of Union Pacific trackage into San Antonio that was originally part of the International and Great Northern Railroad (IGN) , owner by Jay Gould for a time. In the 1970’s and 80’s a saw current maps which still labeled that track as Great Northern, not to be confused with the real ‘Great Northern’ which ran to Seattle.

    The UK has both a Great Northern and a Great Western

    “Great” + directional name makes for great marketing.

    1. YNWRR – Yuge North Western Railroad

  16. What I want to know is: If the guy who murdered Harvey Milk Fought the Law and the Law Won, why didn’t he go to jail?

    No, no my friends. The Dead Kennnedys got it right on this one: “I Fought the Law and I Won.”

    1. The murderer of Supervisor Milk and Mayor Moscone spent five years of a seven year sentence [manslaughter, diminished capacity] in Soledad State Prison, released on parole 7 Jan 1984, spent a year on parole in Los Angeles,. He committed suicide by carbon monoxide inhalation 21 Oct 1985.

      Who would call that “winning” (beside The Dead Kennnedys)?

  17. About 20 years ago I saw an interview with Johnny Cash where he explained this.

    Back in the day songs had to be a certain length (before Alice’s Resteraunt) or stations wouldn’t play them. He had to cut a verse.

    After shooting the stranger
    I fled across the border
    Didn’t want to go to prison
    I was scared of law and order
    But the police pulled me over
    As I sped on past
    When they saw my gun
    They locked up my ass

  18. Objection. This line of questioning calls for speculation.

    1. This whole blog is out of order!

  19. Littering – he dropped the body in California.

    1. He failed to put a label on the body that human flesh, improperly consumed, can be a carcinogen.

  20. On parole on a California crime when he committed the Reno murder, served his Reno sentence (murderers who did not get the death penalty typically did less than ten years in the 50s), then shipped to California to serve out the parole violation after the conclusion of his Nevada sentence?

  21. “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
    For better observation of him dying, to California I did hie
    I brought him to Fresno to watch him draw his last breath
    And they arrested me just after the poor guy’s death.
    Since he died in California, the California courts took jurisdiction
    And that scenario makes my song a plausible fiction.”

  22. “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die
    A court in Nevada said I’d go to prison and not fry
    By an interstate compact, Nevada rented prison space in California
    Young men, by my story from crime I mean to warn ya.”

  23. “I shot a man named Ren, oh, just to watch him die
    He was a whiny little bitch, was my only reason why.”

  24. I can’t hear those lyrics without thinking of this:

  25. > He could’ve used any two-syllable town name (with the emphasis on the first syllable – what the poets call a “trochee”): Merced, Fresno, Jackson, or even Tahoe.

    Merced has its emphasis on the second syllable.

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