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Leo Frank Trial: 1913

Prosecution Clinches Their Case

The prosecutors saved their best witness for last: Jim Conley, a large black man who was the factory janitor. Despite some very suspicious circumstances that tended to implicate Conley as the actual murderer, the prosecutors put him on the stand. It has even been written that Dorsey deliberately chose to prosecute a "Yankee Jew" rather than a "nigger" for purposes of sensationalism, regardless of Frank's innocence. The gist of Conley's lengthy testimony was that he had been at the factory on the day of the murder and that Frank had confessed to the murder:

Mr. Frank was standing up there at the top of the steps and shivering and trembling and rubbing his hands like this. He had a little rope in his hands and a long wide piece of cord. His eyes were large and they looked right funny. He looked funny out of his eyes. His face was red.… After I got up to the top of the steps, he asked me, "Did you see [Mary Phagan] who passed here just a while ago?" I told him … she hasn't come back down, and he says, "Well, that one you say didn't come back down, she come into my office awhile ago and wanted to know something about her work in my office and I went back there to see if the little girl's work had come, and I wanted to be with the little girl, and she refused me, and I struck her and I guess I struck her too hard and she fell and hit her head against something, and I don't know how bad she got hurt.…"

The defense lawyers cross-examined Conley for several days but were unable to impeach his testimony. The defense lawyers also had to contend with the presence of spectators in the courtroom who constantly made catcalls and racist comments—such as "Hang the Jew!"—while the defense attempted to make its case. Although Judge Roan had once been defense lawyer Rosser's partner in private practice, he made no serious effort to curb these distractions.

At the conclusion of the defense's case, Frank himself took the stand. For nearly half a day he spoke, and unequivocally denied murdering Phagan. He explained his apparent nervousness as the natural result of being dragged out of his home so early on a Sunday morning and being confronted with such a gruesome crime:

Now, gentlemen, I have heard a great deal, and have you, in this trial, about nervousness, about how nervous I was that morning. Gentlemen, I was nervous, I was completely unstrung, I will admit it; imagine, awakened out of my sound sleep, and a morning run down in the cool of the morning in an automobile driven at top speed, without any food or breakfast, rushing into a dark passageway, coming into a darkened room, and then suddenly an electric light flashed on, and to see that sight that was presented by that poor little child; why, it was a sight that was enough to drive a man to distraction; that was a sight that would have made a stone melt.

Further, Frank bluntly called Conley a liar:

The statement of the Negro Conley is a tissue of lies from first to last. I know nothing whatever of the cause of the death of Mary Phagan and Conley's statement… that I had anything to do with her or to do with him that day, is a monstrous lie.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Leo Frank Trial: 1913 - Little Mary Phagan Murdered, Prosecutors Emphasize Frank's Nervousness, Prosecution Clinches Their Case, Frank Convicted, Commuted, And Lynched