Read An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank by Elaine Marie Alphin Free Online
Book Title: An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank|
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Reader ratings: 3.6
The author of the book: Elaine Marie Alphin
Edition: Carolrhoda Books
Date of issue: March 1st 2010
ISBN 13: 9780822589440
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 889 KB
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I hardly know what to say about this one. An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank is in all probability the best nonfiction book I've ever read. It takes an old, generally forgotten court case from the dusty annals of the history of the American justice system and forms from it a story of gripping tension and twisting, burning intensity that hits hard in the gut as forcefully as any masterful work of fiction. This story of a court case in 1913 Georgia is all the more haunting because it's completely true; a person whom the facts of his criminal case declared innocent of the capital charges brought against him really was madly pursued by a system overridden by "mob justice", tortured and maligned in virtually every way possible by those whose number one job it was to uphold the ideal of practical justice for all Americans, until the day that the mob had their way and Leo Frank was lynched for a murder that he almost certainly did not commit. Honestly reflecting on the whole situation gives me a sick feeling in my stomach, because what happened to Leo Frank happens, to a certain extent, in every criminal trial driven by unusually strong media interest. The true facts of the case become distorted beyond recognition, and a general public out for blood hears every half-truth about the accused and assumes it to be accurate, in their own minds condemning a human being they've never met and know virtually nothing about on the basis of a few pieces of garbled information brought into the open by suspect sources. It's the job of prosecutors to find evidence that makes the accused in a crime look bad, and a professional prosecutor is going to be able to dig up negative information on anyone that can be spun somehow to put that person in the worst possible light. Yet so often we allow our minds to be definitively made up based on these "evidences" of the accused's sundry malfeasances, and then tell ourselves that they must have done something wrong, or they wouldn't be on trial. But what if they didn't do anything wrong? If you were in their position, or in that of Leo Frank, fighting for your future in front of a jury of potentially biased vigilantes who wanted your blood for a crime you didn't commit, wouldn't you want someone to stop the crazy ride and consider, for just a moment, that you're a real person too, and just as deserving of justice as the victim of the crime you've been accused of committing? To consider that if you are wrongly condemned, then yet another unspeakable injustice has occurred?
In April of 1913, a young teenage laborer (this was prior to the days of enforced child labor laws) named Mary Phagan entered the pencil factory where she worked in Atlanta, Georgia, and was never seen alive again. She had been brutally attacked and murdered by a person or persons unknown, and the police quickly began an investigation into the homicide, unearthing several prime suspects. There was Newt Lee, a black man, the night watchman who accompanied the police as they initially examined the body. A handwritten note beside the corpse, scrawled hurriedly to the point of being almost illegible, made it sound as if Newt Lee might be the culprit. There was Jew Leo Frank, as well, supervisor at the pencil factory, on-duty at the time that the murder was estimated to have taken place. There was also Jim Conley, another black man who witness reports linked to the crime scene. More than one finger was pointed at him, and a few people claimed that he had confessed to them offhand that he had committed the murder, but it wasn't long before prosecutors dismissed thoughts that either of the black men were guilty, and began working fervently to build a case against the factory supervisor, Leo Frank. They seemed sure that he had been the perpetrator of the vicious murder of Mary Phagan, and they were going to make sure that he paid for spilling her precious blood with his own.
Almost immediately, public opinion in the Leo Frank trial became whipped up to a level of insanity that can never be a good thing when the ultimate decision about the mortal fate of a human being is at stake. With only a few available "facts" about the case that were leaked by the prosecution team in order to build support for their side, people became enraged with Leo Frank, fixing him as the target of their murderous anger and out-of-control bloodlust. The people had little idea what the case against Leo Frank was really like, and whether or not it had any legitimate merit, but it was as if they didn't even care. It was as if at some point people had allowed their emotions to take them so completely captive that they didn't even care anymore if Leo Frank was innocent; they didn't really even care about Mary Phagan anymore. All that their emotions cared about was being satiated, finding not the right sacrifice, but any sacrifice, to calm their overwhelming desire for blood. It's a bleak, sobering thought that perhaps the same thing could happen to any of us if we allow ourselves to become slaves, as such, to our emotions, so that justice could become meaningless to us because emotional appeasement is the only food we want to consume.
As the trial gets underway, it's fairly obvious to any external observer that most of the scene is a farce of justice. Maddened crowds hang around outside while court is in session, screaming threats against Leo Frank and anyone who dares to take his side. Such a current of emotion had to have an enormous impact on the jurors; if it didn't, then they would have to have been less than human. There's just no way of getting around that. Somehow, though, despite repeated attempts by Leo Frank's lawyers to have the trial thrown out as being patently unfair because of this blatant jury tampering, the judge steadfastly refused to honor their requests. The unfair trial was to go ahead, but Leo Frank's legal team was confident anyway that a conviction would never happen. Reasonable doubt as to their client's guilt bled from every orifice in the prosecution's case, but that was only for starters. On their own, the defense could pretty nearly prove that it was actually Jim Conley who had murdered Mary Phagan, which should have provided more than enough reason to drop the charges against Leo Frank.
"Dorsey [the prosecuting attorney] understood that the way to a jury's heart was to tell a story they could believe, because a convincing story cannot be refuted by fact. He wove a powerful tale that caught up both the jury and the crowd in its emotion. Rosser [Frank Leo's defense attorney] tried to make them think about facts, but it was very difficult to make reason outweigh emotion."
—An Unspeakable Crime: The Prosecution and Persecution of Leo Frank, P. 65
But the case wasn't dropped, and as the trial went along, those oh-too-human members that invariably make up a jury were clearly being impacted more by the emotional storytelling vibe put out by the lead prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey, than they were by the precision coolness of Leo Frank's team, who relied on the real evidence surrounding the case in order to make their arguments. Leo Frank's lawyers were good at building their assertions and surely created holes in the prosecution's case that should have made a jury wonder why there was ever an indictment issued against Leo Frank in the first place, but Hugh Dorsey was also very good at his job. He understood that with the emotions of this case at such an unreasonable fever pitch, the most damaging blow that he could strike against Leo Frank's cause was to keep the level of emotion always high, to never let it sag to where the jury might let their own volatile passions relax and possibly be persuaded to consider the matter from a perspective of intellectual truth rather than consideration of the anger and burning desire for retribution of an enraged city, county and state. Hugh Dorsey was winning his case against Leo Frank not because he had successfully proven anything that solidly connected the man to the murder of Mary Phagan, but because he had convinced the jury to want the accused to be guilty. And when the heart has a searing wish locked up inside, you can bet it's going to escape and burn someone.
So, how could all of this have been allowed to continue? Why wouldn't some rational soul in power intervene at any point along the way, and tell everyone, "Hey, this isn't justice." Someone with a little bit of clout, perhaps, to back up his or her words with unshakeable authority. The reasons for this puzzling silence from any objective third party may be the most ominous part of the entire bone-chilling affair. Those who could have done something to bring the hideously unjust trial of Leo Frank to a decisive halt either wanted to see him hang regardless of whether or not he was culpable, or they didn't want to ruin their own futures over the fate of a stranger. Influential people in the state of Georgia had whipped everyone up into such hysteria that it was becoming unquestionably dangerous just to express a personal belief that Leo Frank was innocent, even for famous or politically empowered people. It could mean disaster for one's career in the public eye to side with Leo Frank, even if so siding meant that this was a person possessed of the kind of integrity that meant he was willing to take a big personal risk to ensure the smooth flow of justice. The people wanted Leo Frank dead, though, and the sheer force of their will was like a selective natural disaster descending on the people of Georgia: It only ruined the lives of those opposed to railroading the defendant by any means necessary. To think that such an unacceptable situation could have occurred in our very own United States of America is, arguably, the most jarring horror of the whole book.
It didn't take long for the heavily (and quite obviously) tainted jury to return with a "guilty" verdict. Leo Frank was sentenced to die in the space of but a few months, and there was nothing his devoted wife or parents could do to stop it. It was the scythe that would now hang over their heads every day until judgment met injustice.
There were appeals venues to be taken, for sure, but now that Leo Frank had officially been found guilty by a jury of his peers, changing that finding would prove to be nearly impossible. No judge in the land could tell the jury it had been wrong to convict Leo Frank; its decision was final, for better or worse. Judges who heard the appeals could only rule on specific points of the law that had been dealt with incorrectly during the original trial, or important new evidence that hadn't been accessible before, or some kind of violation of U.S. Constitutional policy that would demand a retrial. The appellate judges seemed unable to find a solid basis for any of these technicalities, though it's not clear why; from beginning to end Leo Frank's trial had been an interminable procession of egregious transgressions against his basic human rights; in no wise had his day in court been conducted fairly or in agreement with the standards required by the U.S. justice system. There should have been dozens of points of the law that could have served as grounds for wiping out the whole trial and starting afresh, or even dropping the charges against Leo Frank entirely and releasing him as a free man, but no judge who accepted the responsibility of hearing the appeals was willing to trip any of these technical outs. Leo Frank was going to be hanged, and all of his avenues of reprieve had been exhausted.
Except for one. When Governor John Slaton was given the Leo Frank case for a last-gasp plea that his sentence be commuted to life in prison, the soon-to-be-retired governor took a hard look at the case. Upon his receiving the plea he had quickly been contacted by the politically prestigious Tom Watson, who let the sitting governor know that a lot was going to ride on his decision. If Slaton upheld the sentence, Watson told Slaton, then he, personally, would make sure that the governor won the senate seat that he had his eye on for the next term. If he tried to assert a stay of execution, on the other hand, then Watson would see to it that things did not go well for him politically. A seemingly independent and honest man, Governor Slaton took this bit of illegal pressure as a sign that maybe he should consider this case with particular care, and his instinct was proved true. What Slaton saw when he examined the evidence against Leo Frank was what everyone involved with the case should have seen from the start: There was no evidence against the accused that should have held up in a proper American court of law. This was a case that had been made against a man who was probably innocent, just to satiate the bloodthirsty people who wanted his head regardless of the facts. Faced with this truth, Governor Slaton saw no recourse but to commute Leo Frank's sentence to life in prison, saving the man's life and allowing him time (all the time in the world, basically) to find a way to prove himself innocent of the crimes that had been attached to his name.
Leo Frank's wife was overjoyed that the doomsday deadline for her husband had been wiped away, but some of the most powerful names in Georgia politics and business were disgusted by what they saw as the governor's cowardice in giving in to the last-ditch plea of a cold-blooded killer. Slaton was threatened repeatedly for the decision he had made and riots nearly overtook the governor's mansion, which gives us some idea of perhaps why no one in power had stepped in before this point to speak up on behalf of Leo Frank. The most powerful proponents of Leo Frank's death sentence were not going to let the commutation of his fate go by the wayside so easily, though. A group of influential bigwigs, headed up by former governor Joseph M. Brown, developed an intricate plan to take over by stealth the prison where Leo Frank was being held, abscond with the hated prisoner, and lynch him beside the grave of Mary Phagan. Many of the most horrific moments that surround the entire Leo Frank debacle would eventually come about as a result of the actions taken by this insatiable mob on their night of unspeakably subverted justice.
More than seventy years after the conviction of Leo Frank, evidence continued to come out that supported his innocence. In 1982, one of the witnesses at the original trial, now in his eighties, swore a new affidavit telling the real story of what he saw on the night when Mary Phagan was murdered, a story that could have exonerated Leo Frank had it come out seventy years earlier. This witness claimed to have seen the real murderer in action with Mary Phagan after the gruesome crime had been committed, but said that he had been afraid to step forward and tell what he knew at the time. Not only did he fear the possible revenge of the killer, he also knew that to go against the crimson tide of hate that was sweeping toward Leo Frank was to put himself, and his own family, in jeopardy. Such things happen, I suppose, when the system becomes twisted to the point where people don't really care about the truth of the matter even when the life of a possibly innocent man hangs in the balance.
This book hit me very hard, and had my mind racing a million different directions at the speed of light all at once. The richness of the story's thoughts and ideas are essentially immeasurable and unending. You could read An Unspeakable Crime fifty or a hundred times and get more out of it with each reading. It has so much to say about such a variety of hugely important topics that I could never address them all in the twenty thousand characters allowed for a review here on Goodreads. An Unspeakable Crime is a nonfiction treasure of literature like I have never seen before, and no recommendation I give it could be high enough. It is one of the most important books that I have ever read, and also one of the very best, a distinction that I don't make lightly at all. An Unspeakable Crime is a masterpiece in every way.
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