Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Lynching of Leo Frank

Jim Conley

Dorsey brought forth his star witness, now freshly scrubbed and in new clothes, a contrast to his usually unkempt and dirty appearance.  With Dorsey's guidance, Conley glibly elaborated his earlier three depositions.  The janitor said that he had arrived as usual at 8:30 a.m. on that Saturday, and was told by Frank to run some errands.  He said that Frank told him that he was expecting a young lady, which meant that Conley, upon his return from his errands, was to lock the front door when he heard the pre-arranged signal --- a stamping of the foot from above --- and unlock the door when he heard Frank's whistle.  This system, he claimed, had been used before for other assignations. 

Mary Phagan, Conley said, arrived and went upstairs to Frank's office.  Soon he heard a scream from the area of the second-floor workroom, the room that the prosecution contended was the murder site.  Almost immediately, Monteen Stover entered and went to the second floor where she stayed, according to Conley --- and contrary to her earlier testimony --- "a pretty good while."  After Miss Stover left, the janitor dozed off and was awakened by foot stamping, the signal to lock the front door.  Then came the whistle.  He unlocked the front door, went upstairs, and, at the top of the stairs, found Frank shivering and trembling, with a small rope in his hands.  Dorsey showed Conley the rope.  "That's it," Conley said.

Dorsey showing Conley the rope
Dorsey showing Conley the rope
(Atlanta Constitution, August 5, 1913)

According to Conley, Frank told him that he had hit the girl when she had resisted his advances, and that she had struck her head on the lathe.  He told the janitor to wrap the body in cotton cloth and to carry it to the basement.  Conley did as he was told, but the body of Little Mary Phagan was too heavy for him to carry alone.   Frank took the girl's feet, Conley her shoulders, and they carried her to the elevator, rode to the basement, deposited the body, and took the elevator back to the second floor.  Back in Frank's office, he dictated the notes to Conley, using an order pad, and then gave him $200, telling him to burn the body.  Conley refused, Frank took back the money, and told him to come back for it later in the day.  Conley then went home, drank and ate, and fell asleep, not awakening until after 6:30 p.m.

So testified Conley for the prosecution.  He had been convincing.  His account had been so vivid, particularly in his description of Frank's previous sexual encounters, that the judge asked women and children to leave the courtroom, so that they would not hear Conley's graphic description of Frank's numerous sexual escapades with factory girls.  The newspapers considered some of Conley's testimony unsuitable for a family paper, and omitted portions of his narrative.

It was now the defense's turn with Conley.  For sixteen hours --- spread over three days --- Rosser and Arnold cross-examined Conley, getting him to admit that he had lied in his previous depositions.  They questioned his memory, but they were unable to force him to make a major misstatement.  Curiously, the defense allowed Conley to elaborate his graphic descriptions of Frank's sexual encounters while he was Frank's lookout.  What made this tactic damaging is that the defense, after their cross-examination, recognizing their error belatedly, moved that Conley's descriptions of Frank's assignations be stricken from the record.  The prosecution objected, and the judge, Leonard Roan, rejected the motion.  In effect, this damaging tactic was supportive of the dismal fact that the defense had been unable to break Conley's story.  The crowd in the courtroom burst out in loud applause when the judge delivered his ruling on the motion to suppress.

One significant and revolting admission by Conley, during the cross-examination, went unnoticed.  Conley said that on the morning of the murder, he had defecated at the bottom of the elevator shaft.  The significance of this went unrecognized by the defense, and would be of some importance later in the case when the reliability of Conley's testimony was brought into question.

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