The Lynching of Leo Frank
The Final Option
All that was left for the defense --- its only option --- was to seek a commutation of the death sentence from the governor of Georgia.
New developments encouraged Frank's supporters that their man might yet be spared from hanging, if not from incarceration itself. Conley's lawyer, William M. Smith, made the startling announcement that he believed his client, Conley, to be the murderer. His statement was based on a re-evaluation and interpretation of the facts of the case, and did not present any new evidence. At the same time, several investigating journalists wrote a series of articles concluding that Frank was innocent. The effect of Smith's announcement and the journalists' articles was to make the Frank case a nationwide story. However, the Georgia press was not sympathetic to either Smith's statement or by the stories of Northern newspapers and magazines. Tom Watson maintained that Smith had been bribed by Frank's lawyers and supporters, and those convinced of Frank's guilt believed Watson's unsubstantiated claim of bribery.
In the meantime, the Georgia Prison Commission and the Governor of Georgia, John M. Slaton, received over 100,000 letters and telegrams urging clemency for Frank. The battle lines were drawn between the pro-Frank and anti-Frank supporters. While Watson continued his attacks through his publications (whose circulations and profits had soared during his condemnation of Frank --- the "lustful Jew," as he called him), Jewish groups and other liberal organizations gingerly (so as not to offend Southern sensibilities) continued their campaign for a commutation of the death sentence.
As angry crowds calling for Frank's death rallied on the grounds of the State Capital, the Prison Commission met on May 31, 1915, to rule on Frank's petition for commutation. The defense presented much of the material used in previous appeals, along with the handwriting expert's conclusions that Frank could not have dictated the letters to Conley. They also presented a letter from Judge Roan, who again expressed his doubts about Frank's guilt, including the admission that he had shown "undue deference to the opinion of the jury." Unfortunately, Judge Roan died before the Prison Commission met, and his offer to appear in person before the Commission was, of course, not to happen, although his letter was submitted in support of the petition. The prosecution did not appear, nor did it argue against the petition, other than to express its opposition to any other penalty than hanging. The Prison Commission, by a vote of two to one, declined to recommend clemency for Frank to the Governor.
Governor Slaton was near the end of his term. He had been a very popular governor, and before that a highly respected member of the Georgia legislature. He was considered a leading candidate for the U.S. Senate after his term as governor was over. Tom Watson, on the condition that he deny clemency to Frank, was ready to support his bid for national office. With only a few days left in his term, he could very easily have left the problem of Frank to his successor. Instead, he considered the evidence, the dissenting votes of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Georgia Supreme Court, the Prison Commission, and the uneasiness of the trial judge. He actually believed Frank to be innocent, but thought that, in time, his innocence would be proved, and that his immediate concern was to make certain that Frank was alive in order to be eventually exonerated. During his deliberations, he received over a thousand threatening letters.
Nonetheless, as an act of conscience, after twelve days of wrestling with the case, Slaton did the unpopular thing and commuted Frank's sentence to life imprisonment, first making certain that Frank was moved to the more secure facility at Milledgeville State Prison Farm. He released his decision, a ten thousand-word document, which set forth his reasons for commuting the sentence.
The reaction was mixed, to say the least. About half of the newspapers supported the decision, including two of Atlanta's three major papers. Others were not so happy. Slaton was hung in effigy, and many citizens turned on their Jewish neighbors, distributing anti-Jewish literature and boycotting their businesses. Watson's comments were furious, and included such inflammatory language as "... lynch law is better than no law at all."
Governor Slaton lived about six miles from the state capital, and had to declare martial law within a half mile radius of his house, calling out a battalion of state militia to protect him and his family.
While many believed --- particularly with the urging of Tom Watson --- that the governor had been bought with Jewish money and influence, the commutation stood. It was done.