Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

The Legacy of the Leo Frank Case

The Leo Frank case is one of those curious instances in the annals of American history, often unknown to Americans, and then, from time to time, brought back into the public's awareness.  In some respects it is forgotten, much like the lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans about one hundred years ago, or the sensational Hall-Mills murder case in the 1920s.

Nonetheless, it has had a lasting impact.  The Knights of Mary Phagan became the resurrected Ku Klux Klan, whose existence disgraces the American landscape even today.  The Jewish Anti-defamation League, formed in response to the Frank case, persists in its activities, identifying egregious anti-Semitism whenever it arises in modern life.  Most important, the Frank case became the impetus for a number of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have changed the standards for trials in America.  Justice Holmes, in 1923, writing this time for a Court majority, established that due process in criminal trials is compromised by an inflamed public climate, citing the Frank case as a clear precedent.  Other rulings over the next thirty years reinforced this decision, culminating in a Supreme Court decision that granted Sam Sheppard a new trial in 1954, citing the "virulent publicity" surrounding that murder trial.  Further, the Supreme Court, as a result of the Frank case, ruled that perjured testimony was inadmissible, and, although no charges of perjury were brought against any of the witnesses in the case of Leo Frank, the numerous recantations and the dubious testimony of Jim Conley were influential in the Court's bringing forth this ruling.

The principals in the case met various, predictable fates.  Jim Conley had a checkered life, being shot in a 1919 burglary attempt --- for which he served only one year of a twenty-year sentence, the result of his "cooperation" in the Frank case.  He was arrested for gambling in 1941, and arrested for being drunk and disorderly in 1947.  He died in 1962, well into his seventies, without recanting his testimony.

The politicians had mixed fates.  In effect, ex-Governor Slaton was exiled from politics, and returned to the practice of law, and was greatly admired in his profession.  When he died in 1955, he was honored across the state.  Solicitor General Dorsey realized his political ambitions and became governor of Georgia from 1916 to 1921, largely on his popularity developed during his prosecution of Frank.  Tom Watson, populist, became even more of a political boss, eventually being elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia in 1920, but dying shortly thereafter in 1922.  At his funeral, the Ku Klux Klan sent an eight-foot tall cross of roses.

Eventually, Frank was vindicated.  In 1982, an old man, Alonzo Mann, came forth with the information that he had seen Jim Conley dragging Mary Phagan's body.  Mann, then a thirteen-year-old office boy at the pencil factory, was told by Conley not to tell what he had seen, or Conley would kill him.

Finally, the Anti-Defamation League, encouraged by Alonzo Mann's testimony, convinced the Georgia Board of Pardons to grant Leo Frank a posthumous pardon.  After first rejecting the application, they pardoned Leo Frank on March 11, 1986, more than seventy years after his lynching by the prominent citizens of Marietta, Georgia.

Although a few of the observers of the trial, such as the author and critic, Burton Rascoe, remained convinced of Frank's guilt, it is clear that he could not have killed Mary Phagan.  For one thing, the timing is wrong.  The preponderance of testimony place Frank in places where he could not have had either the opportunity or the time to kill Mary Phagan and, with Conley's supposed help, carry the body to the basement.  There is no physical evidence that incontrovertibly links Frank to the murder.  Finally, the only supposed evidence against him is the testimony of the disreputable and unreliable Jim Conley.  Indeed, at one time or another, all prosecution witnesses recanted their damaging testimony or were shown to be prejudiced against the accused.

While Alonzo Mann's testimony --- albeit many years after the fact --- does not prove that Jim Conley was the murderer, he was the man seen to be moving the body.  In all probability, Jim Conley killed Mary Phagan.