Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

The Trial Begins

Reading the press accounts of the time, there is no question that the Leo Frank trial, at least in the South, was the O.J. Simpson case of that era.  After four months of constant front-page coverage by most of the major Southern newspapers, nation-wide publications took up the coverage, and garbled press accounts of rumors were accompanied by impassioned editorials both for and against the accused.

Leo Frank
Leo Frank

Pre-trial publicity was extensive, and generally unfavorable to Frank.  The Atlanta newspapers and the public they served were yet to be convinced of Frank's innocence, and doubts were raised by two of the three Atlanta dailies over whether an unprejudiced jury could be found.  Indeed, the newspapers had inflamed the public to the degree that an unruly crowd surrounded the courthouse during the entire trial.  Twenty policemen were assigned to guard the courtroom.  This same crowd, only a few of whom could find seats in the courtroom, would later be extremely vocal during the actual court proceedings.

The lawyers in the trial, both for the defense and the prosecution, were among the best known in the South.  Luther Rosser, a relentless examiner of witnesses, and Reuben Arnold, a highly regarded criminal lawyer, represented the defense.  The prosecution consisted of the very political and admired Solicitor General, Hugh Dorsey, and another well-known Georgia lawyer, Frank Harper.

At the opening of the trial, the prosecution sought to establish Leo Frank's guilt circumstantially.  They began with expert witnesses, two of whom testified that blood drops on the floor of the second floor workroom --- a room directly across the hall from Frank's office --- was the blood of Mary Phagan, although no scientific analysis of the blood had been done.  Further, strands of Mary Phagan's hair were found on a lathe in the same workroom, although --- again --- no scientific analysis of the strands had been carried out.  The experts merely expressed their "professional opinions."

The prosecution moved on to establish the probable time of death of the victim, probably between noon and 12:15 p.m., according to the examining physician.  Then they tried to establish that Frank had been the last person --- other than the murderer, if it was not he --- to see Mary Phagan alive.  Monteen Stover, one of the pencil factory employees, testified that she had arrived at 12:05 p.m. to collect her pay, did not find Frank in his office, and left the building at 12:10 p.m.  This contradicted Frank's statement to the police on April 28, when he told them that Mary Phagan had come to his office between 12:05 and 12:10 p.m., and that he had been in his office during the entire period from 12:00 noon until 12:30 p.m.  Hence, the prosecution claimed, Leo Frank had the opportunity to murder Mary Phagan during the time that Monteen Stover was waiting outside his empty office.

The heart of the prosecution's case, however, was the testimony of Jim Conley.  For the prosecution, everything depended on how credible Jim Conley's story appeared to the jury.

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