With the centennial of Leo Frank’s lynching behind us, it is time to confront the key question: not whether Frank killed little Mary Phagan in April 1913, but whether the state of Georgia should officially recognize his innocence and exonerate him for the crime that led to his own death 28 months later.
As friends and foes alike note, the pardon the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles approved in 1986 clears Frank’s record on the grounds that he was denied due process during his trial and that the state failed to protect him. The pardon offers no opinion on whether Frank committed murder.
But Dale Schwartz, the lawyer who won the pardon, explained during a centennial event at Congregation Etz Chaim that the compromise wording of the pardon did not reflect doubts about Frank’s innocence. Instead, some of the five board members were concerned about the precedent of granting a posthumous pardon and the risk of facing thousands of similar petitions. The Anti-Defamation League still expected to win a full pardon in 1984, only for the board to turn down the request amid some suspicious backroom wheeling and dealing.
After publishing roughly 10,000 words related to the case over the Aug. 14 and 21 issues, we recognize that we will never know with certainty how Phagan died. Like most people who have studied the case, we believe that Frank is innocent and that janitor Jim Conley, the key witness against Frank, was the real killer.
But like Steve Oney, who wrote the definitive book on the case, “And the Dead Shall Rise,” we recognize that there is no way to rule out Frank’s guilt. If we were to retry Frank today, we are confident he would be found not guilty. But not guilty is not the same as innocent.
Certain physical evidence points away from Frank and at Conley, including the coal dust found in the girl’s lungs, indicating that she was still alive when she was dumped in the National Pencil Co. factory basement, and Conley’s feces at the bottom of the factory elevator shaft, whose intact state indicated that he couldn’t have used the elevator to dispose of the body, contradicting his testimony.
But no one ever came forward and claimed to witness the slaying. No one provided an alibi for Frank, the last person who admitted seeing Phagan alive.
We also must not forget the descendants of the original victim. Whatever peace a full pardon for Frank might bring our community, the process could bring just as much pain to Phagan family members, most of whom remain convinced of his guilt.
Schwartz said an unsuccessful public pursuit of exoneration from the board could hurt Frank’s reputation. After all, most people aware of the case know he was pardoned but don’t know the wording; they already think the state considers him innocent.
But the verdict of history matters. While Schwartz said he does not believe that the Board of Pardons and Paroles will ever take up the case again, our elected officials could. It’s time for the General Assembly, the governor or both to finish the justice marathon started by Gov. John Slaton in 1915 and continued by the pardon board in 1986 and carry Frank past the innocence finish line.