Afterward – Pardon: 1986

On March 19, 1985 my father told me that Alonzo Mann died. I felt sad. To me, he was a fine gentleman; he believed what he had seen to be evidence of the truth. He was at peace now. I was still struggling for my peace. On March 6, 1986 Silas Moore of the Pardons and Paroles Board had contacted me regarding the Board’s receipt of another application for a pardon for Leo Frank. The Board wanted to meet with my father and me. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. The reverberations from the Board’s denial of pardon in 1983 had never really died down. “I don’t know,” Board member James Morris had said in 1985, “I wish we could do something to right this wrong. I know we want to do something, but to say with one hundred per cent certainty that Leo Frank is an innocent man is a very difficult thing to do.” That year Wayne Snow, Jr., who had been appointed chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said, “The case is so repulsive because of the lynching— because it terminated all the rights of an individual.” Another Board member had been disturbed by “the State’s inability to protect one of its citizens” since Frank was in state custody during the lynching.

And while no one on the Board mentioned the goal of repudiating antiSemitism, there was no way anyone could have been unaware of the pain that the Frank case seemed to cause the Jewish community—nationally. The following day, my father and I met with Wayne Snow, Jr., the new chairman of the Board, and Mike Wing. We were told that the Jewish community had again filed application for a posthumous pardon. And that if a pardon were issued, it would be based not on guilt or innocence but on the contention that “the State did not protect Leo Frank and that his rights were violated.” The Board felt that the lynching of Leo Frank was wrong. And that this pardon would “heal old wounds.” Apparently, renewed efforts for pardon had begun in September 1985. And while at first the petitioners had thought they’d failed to obtain the pardon in 1983 simply because they had not brought enough pressure to bear, they had come to see that, beyond the strictly procedural action of the process which sought to establish Leo Frank’s innocence or Jim Conley’s—or someone else’s— guilt, what was most probably achievable was a pardon that addressed the extralegal case about Leo Frank. And this approach by the petitioners allowed Board members’ sympathies for the extra-legal aspects of the case to come through. The Board had been deeply concerned about the problem of setting a precedent for a huge number of posthumous pardon applications, were Frank pardoned on strictly legal bases. By addressing the extra-legal case, however, the precedent that a pardon would grant would only be to exceptional cases like the Frank case. So, six months prior to the Board’s contacting me, an initial proposed pardon application made its way through to some members of the Board. This initial draft repudiated the old standard of absolute innocence and made no mention of a pardon based on innocence or guilt. By March, members of the Board had agreed in principle to grant a special type of pardon which would imply neither innocence or guilt, but merely address the concerns brought about by the case. They approved such a pardon in early March. After meeting with representatives of the petitioners, the Board began drafting a final pardon order which they approved shortly after ADL officials and others found it acceptable.

But our family had questions. Why was there no public announcement of receipt of application? Why were other people who opposed granting of the pardon not told of the new application? My father reminded the Board that if the pardon were granted books, miniseries, and movies of the Mary Phagan/Leo Frank case would be made, and, he believed, the pardon would not “heal old wounds” as they had hoped: instead, little Mary Phagan’s story would never die, and the controversy surrounding her horrible death would continue. “You are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t,” he told them. Former Chairman Silas Moore announced the issuance of a pardon order on March 11, 1986 at 1:00 P.M. at the Georgia State Capitol. It seems that Board members had finally agreed on the bases for granting a pardon. They reflected concern that Frank’s lynching had foreclosed efforts to prove him innocent. The Board also addressed three extra-legal concerns—the repudiation of lynch law, the need to heal old wounds, and the acknowledgement of anti-Semitism. The question of whether Leo Frank had really committed the murder—the search for his purity or demonhood—was now just dust in the wind. In the discussionsof pardon from September through March 1986 the Board had done no detective work, except to ensure the accuracy of its final order, discussing the historic background to the Frank trial. The Board simply overlooked guilt or innocence, something it had never done in pardons of forgiveness or pardons of innocence. The final statement read: On April 26, 1913, Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old employee in an Atlanta pencil factory was murdered. Georgians were shocked and outraged. Charged with the murder was the factory superintendent, Leo M. Frank. The funeral of Mary Phagan, the police investigation, and the trial of Leo Frank were reported in the overblown newspaper style of the day. Emotions were fanned high. During the trial a crowd filled the courthouse and surrounded it. While the verdict was read, Frank was kept in jail for protection. He was convicted on August 25, 1913, and subsequently sentenced to death.

After unsuccessful court appeals the case came to Governor John M. Slaton for his consideration. 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. On June 21, 1915, the governor, because of doubts about Frank’s guilt, commuted the sentence from death to life imprisonment. Thus Frank was saved from the gallows, and his judicial appeals could continue, or so it seemed. 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 lynching aborted the legal process, thus foreclosing further efforts to prove Frank’s innocence. It resulted from the State of Georgia’s failure to protect Frank. Compounding the injustice, the State then failed to prosecute any of the lynchers. In 1983 the State Board of Pardons and Paroles considered a request for a pardon implying innocence, but did not find “conclusive evidence proving beyond any doubt that Frank was innocent.” Such a standard of proof, especially for a seventy-year-old case, is almost impossible to satisfy. 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, and as an effort to heal old wounds, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, in compliance with its constitutional and statutory authority, hereby grants to Leo M. Frank a pardon. Given under the Hand and Seal of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, this eleventh day of March, 1986. STATE BOARD OF PARDONS AND PAROLES Wayne Snow, Jr., Chairman Mrs. Mamie B. Reese, Member James T. Morris, Member Mobley Howell, Member Michael H. Wing, Member The reports had indicated that the Board worked in secret with the Jewish community for almost a year and Wayne Snow, Chairman of the Board, stated this publicly during a TV station interview. This disturbed us. Wayne Snow had told us at the beginning of March that the Board was thinking of granting a pardon, but, in fact, had already made the decision which they announced immediately after they spoke to us. We wondered what the purpose was of keeping it secret? The pardon was covered by the media across the country. Everyone who knew me sent me the articles. Most of the newspapers reported that the relatives of Mary Phagan said that “Frank’s official pardon doesn’t mean he was innocent.” My father felt that the pardon which was finally issued was meaningless, for it had not settled the real question of Leo Frank’s innocence or guilt.

As the publicity surrounding the announcement of the pardon died down, my struggle for inner peace became more difficult. I continued to have nightmares. It was as if someone was trying to warn me, to prod me into action. I felt compelled to tell my family’s side of little Mary’s story, to let the next generation of Phagans know their heritage, to let everyone know the true legacy of little Mary Phagan. In January of 1987, the story of little Mary Phagan appeared in the newspapers again. Because of racial tension in nearby all-white Forsyth County, the media reminded readers that the murder of little Mary Phagan spurred the beginnings of the modern KKK. And now my father’s prediction of more books being written about the case and television miniseries is beginning to come true. I wonder what the next phase will be. Even more, I wonder: will we ever know with complete certainty who killed Mary Phagan? Has the answer gone to the graves with all the participants in the tragedy?