Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

The Verdict

The jury was charged, and less than four hours later, returned a verdict of guilty.  Thousands surrounding the courthouse went wild with joy when they heard the verdict.  The atmosphere was so charged that Judge Roan postponed the sentencing until the next day, and then, in secret session, sentenced Leo Frank to death by hanging.

People gather outside to wait for the verdict
People gather outside to wait for
the verdict

Both Frank and his lawyers were shocked by the verdict and the sentence.  They thought that they had made a convincing case-- that more than reasonable doubt had been presented.  The defense lawyers, however, had failed in at least three crucial areas.  First, it did not occur to them that the excrement at the bottom of the elevator shaft, still in tact until police used the elevator the day after the murder, must have meant that Conley's story about he and Frank using the elevator to transport Mary Phagan's body could not be true.  The elevator went all the way to the bottom of the shaft, and the excrement would have been smashed, releasing its foul odor, as it was when the police used the elevator.

Second, the defense failed to challenge the "scientific" evidence.  The blood drops and strands of hair had not been analyzed, and there was no clear proof that these items of evidence had come from Mary Phagan.

Last, the defense miscalculated the effect that the character witnesses would have on both the jury and the crowd in and around the courthouse.  These witnesses were mostly from the North, many were Jewish, and their credibility in this highly charged, anti-Semitic climate was virtually non-existent.  During the trial, the judge, defense lawyers, and, it is believed, members of the jury were threatened with lynching if Frank had been found not guilty.  Shouts of "hang the Jew!" resounded over the courthouse grounds.  The governor of Georgia prepared the National Guard for possible rioting.  Although the defense lawyers were aware of the prejudice against their client, they did not measure the extent of the public hostility.

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