Leo Frank, the Atlanta Jew lynched in 1915 after being convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old girl who worked in the factory where he was a superintendent, received a posthumous pardon Tuesday from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The pardon, signed by all five members of the board chaired by Wayne Snow, Jr., came over two years after the board had refused such an exoneration because, it then said, "it is impossible to decide conclusively the guilt or innocence of Frank."
The board had re-opened the case after the late Alonzo Mann, then 85, came forward to say that, as an office boy of 14 in the pencil factory where the murder of Mary Phagan took place, he had seen the janitor carry her body to the basement.
The parole board claimed in December, 1983 that Mann’s statement did not provide any new evidence. Major American Jewish organizations-including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council — expressed shock at the board’s refusal of the posthumous pardon.
The board, in granting the pardon Tuesday, gave an account of the entire case, concluding that finding "conclusive evidence proving beyond any doubt that Frank was innocent" was a standard of proof "almost impossible to satisfy" especially for "a 70-year-old case." The board’s statement continued:
"Without attempting to address the question of guilt or innocence and in recognition of the state’s failure to protect the person of Leo M. Frank and thereby preserve his opportunity for continued legal appeal of his conviction, and in recognition of the state’s failure to bring his killers to justice," the board hereby grants Frank a pardon.
ACCOUNT OF THE CASE
The account of the case given by the board in its statement begins with the murder of Phagan on April 26, 1913, which "shocked and outraged" Georgia residents. Frank, it said, was charged with the murder and convicted August 25, 1913 and sentenced to death.
The case came before Governor John Slaton after unsuccessful appeals. "The Governor was under enormous pressure. Many wanted Frank to hang and the emotions of some were fired by prejudice about Frank being Jewish and a factory superintendent from the north."
Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment on June 21, 1915. "On the night of August 16, 1915, a group of armed men took Frank by force from the state prison at Milledgeville, transported him to Cobb County and early the next morning lynched him," the board’s statement continued.
The lynching, according to the board, "resulted from the State of Georgia’s failure to protect Frank." It then failed to "prosecute any other (sic) lynchers," thus "compounding the injustice" done Frank.
What the board statement did not relate was that after the lynching, armed mobs roamed the streets of Atlanta, forcing Jewish business firms to close their doors. About 1,500 of Georgia’s Jewish population of 3,000 fled, and others were targets of a boycott.
The reactions to the events — the trial where mobs screamed anti-Semitic slogans through the windows — and to the lynching were so intense that they catalyzed the establishment of the Anti-Defamation League. The events also spawned a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The 1983 refusal of the Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant Frank a posthumous parole revived the traumatic memories and bitterness of the Jews who had lived through the events.
Tuesday’s posthumous pardon of Frank was "welcomed with a sense of gratitude by Gerald Cohen, president of the Atlanta Jewish Federation, at a news conference later in the afternoon, as a "historic decision."
Calling the chapter of history of the Frank case and its aftermath one "that has caused much pain and sorrow for over 60 years," Cohen said the board’s decision removed "this tragic stigma from the great State of Georgia, indeed, from the collective conscience of the nation.
"We are confident that, at long last, these wounds of doubt and distrust will now be healed."
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.