Jerry Summers: Leo Frank - Atlanta's Murder Victim

Monday, September 20, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Until the arrival of the Atlanta Wayne William child murders between July 1979 and May 1981, involving the deaths of 28 young children, adolescents, and adults, the most famous murder case in Georgia was that of Leo Frank.

            Every lawyer and non-lawyer should review some of the various articles on this landmark case to ascertain what happened in a case totally absorbed with anti-Semitism, abusive and prejudicial news coverage, prosecutorial misconduct by law enforcement and a district attorney, jury and witness tampering, use of perjured testimony, forced confessions and many other violations of constitutional rights which fortunately our courts now address but which were totally lacking in 1913-1915.

In 1913 Frank was convicted of the murder of a fellow employee, Mary Phagan, in Atlanta, Georgia.

            Both Frank and his alleged murder victim were employed at the National Pencil Company.

            Frank was born to a Jewish-American family in Cuero, Texas on April 17, 1884 and at an early age his family moved to New York where he attended Cornell University and earned a degree in mechanical engineering before moving to Atlanta in 1910. 

            The victim, Mary Phagan, was employed at the pencil factory at the hourly wage of 10 cents.

            She was strangled on April 26, 1913 and her body was found the next day in the plant’s cellar.

            Initially three individuals, Leon Frank, the night watchman, Newt Lee, and a black janitor, Jim Conley, were all suspects and jailed.

            Lee would be dismissed as the potential killer and Conley would be the star witness who testified as an alleged accomplice of Frank in the murder.

            Despite defense efforts to paint Conley as the actual murderer, their efforts were unsuccessful and Frank was convicted and sentenced to death.

            What followed the trial and the various hearings and appeals through various appellant courts ended in the United States Supreme Court decision of Frank v. Mangrum, 273 U.S. 309 (1915) when the High Court by a vote of 7-2 affirmed Frank’s conviction and sentence on the grounds that his lawyer had failed to timely raise the issue of whether their client's constitutional right to be present when he was sentenced in absence in the Judge’s chambers because of potential mob violence was violated.

            In an earlier 142-page opinion by the Georgia Supreme Court on February 17, 1914 it had rejected the argument on the same issue by a 4-2 vote.

            Upon reviewing the facts of the case beginning with the murder of Mary Phagan, on April 26, 1913 and concluding that the lynching of Leo Frank on August 17, 1915 was unlawful, a reader has to be appalled at the complete breakdown and collapse of the justice system in Atlanta.

            History has belatedly changed the results of this horrendous black mark on the scales of justice by a posthumous pardon of Leo Frank in 1986 by the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, although it failed to completely clear Frank of the crime in a totally inadequate gesture based on a complete abandonment of the principles of “right to a fair trial’ and “due process of law”.

            The final destructive step in this breakdown of justice was when Frank was kidnapped from the Milledgeville State Prison, where he had been taken for protection, by a gang of lynchers and summarily executed in a public display in Marietta.

            One of the few acts of courage in the case was when Georgia Governor John M. Slaton in 1915 commuted Frank’s sentence from capital punishment to life imprisonment after a full examination of the trial testimony as well as new exonerating evidence produced afterwards.

            Slaton’s actions were the basis for the illegal vigilante action that led to Frank’s lynching on August 17.

            A good starting point for a review of the facts, circumstances, and various court rulings would be a review of the lengthy Georgia Supreme Court decision of Frank v. State of Georgia, 114 GA. 243 (1914), the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Frank v. Mangum 273 U.S. 309 (1915) and the 24-page summary of the case in Wikipedia under the name of Leo Frank.

            Any further interest in this case can be satisfied by examination of the various sources listed in the chronology at the end of the article.

            Hopefully such a sensational travesty of our legal justice system will never occur again.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

Leo Frank
Leo Frank

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