Friday, November 13, 2009

The People v. Leo Frank (PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright @ 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I watched another program from PBS, The People v. Leo Frank, a recent broadcast about the murder of Leo Frank (Will Janowitz) in 1915. Frank was a Jew from New York City who came to Atlanta early in the 20th century to manage a pencil factory owned by one of his uncles, and he got into trouble when he was accused of killing 13-year-old Mary Phagan, an employee in his factory, after she came by on the morning of a Confederate Decoration Day parade to pick up her check for $1.20 (real money in 1913!) and she later turned up dead in the basement, assaulted (apparently raped) and killed. The body was discovered by a Black worker at the factory, Newt Lee (Gordon Danniels), and later another Black worker, Jim Conley (Seth Gilliam), and Frank turned out to be the principal suspects.

The well-off Frank, who had married into Atlanta’s own Jewish community, had “the finest defense money can buy,” namely legendary attorney Luther Rosser (Brent White), famous for refusing to wear a tie in court and helping the cream of Atlanta’s high society avoid legal penalties for their antisocial behaviors — but Conley also had an attorney, William Smith (Jayson Warner Smith), a sort of real-life Atticus Finch who became famous for taking on Black clients and sometimes winning their freedom. Smith was able to assist the state’s official prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey (Steve Coulter), and to handle the direct examination of Conley — and according to the police Frank not only killed Mary Phagan when she refused to have sex with him, he got Conley to implicate himself by dictating notes, allegedly left by Phagan herself before she died, identifying her killer as a “big, tall, black Negro.”

Conley withstood a withering cross-examination, while Frank used a legal loophole — he was allowed to read an unsworn statement into the record — to avoid either refusing to testify at all or being subject to cross-examination himself. Then prosecutor Dorsey put a long line of young women who’d worked at Frank’s factory on the stand to claim that he was what in modern parlance would be called a serial sexual harasser — the language of sexual harassment didn’t exist in 1913 but the reality of it did, and was frequently cited by people with sexist prejudices against women working at all. Feelings against Frank ran so high in Atlanta that the judge decided for his own safety that he should not be in court when the verdict was read, He was found guilty and sentenced to death; his appeal was heard 13 times and denied each time (the last time by the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction 7-2 even though Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes pointed out in his dissent that if the judge thought that the defendant’s safety required his absence from the courtroom when the verdict was read, that was pretty obvious evidence that the depth of the community’s feeling against him had prevented him from receiving a fair trial).

Then William Smith took another look at the trial transcript and compared Jim Conley’s testimony to the notes supposedly taken down from Frank’s dictation and found that, contrary to Dorsey’s closing argument — which claimed that the notes had come from the mind of a more educated man than Conley because they used the verb “did” correctly while Conley used “done” instead — Conley had actually said “did” properly 50 times in his testimony, and he was also partial to using three adjectives in front of a noun the way the note had in its reference to a “big, tall, black Negro.” At this point the Frank story turns into what To Kill a Mockingbird would have been if Atticus Finch had discovered, after a white person had been convicted of the crime, that his Black client was guilty after all. With this new evidence, Smith went before Georgia governor John Slaton (Terrence Gibney) and joined Frank’s lawyers in a request to commute Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment — apparently on the theory that sentiment still ran so high against Frank that he’d be in mortal danger if he were freed from custody altogether. (Curiously, this show does not mention that Slaton had been the law partner of Frank’s attorney and was therefore accused, with some basis, of having a conflict of interest.)

In the meantime Frank’s case had continued to be a cause célèbre on both sides; the New York Times took his side in what’s been described as its first and only journalistic crusade (an odd turn of phrase given that both Frank and Times publisher Adolph Ochs were Jewish), and as well meant as this was it’s clear that much of the support Frank was getting from the Times and other prominent Northern Jews was backfiring big-time. Ranged against Frank was Georgia populist leader Thomas E. Watson (middle initial just in case you want to Google him and don’t want to come up with Thomas A. Watson, Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant and the recipient of the first telephone call; or Thomas J. Watson, the president of IBM at the time of the company’s most spectacular growth; or former Marine general Thomas E. Watson, USMC), who had degenerated from his initial calls for racial unity and the franchise for Blacks into a vicious race-baiter.

Watson’s paper, The Jeffersonian, attacked not only Frank and his Northern Jewish supporters but Jews in general, and offered lubricious details of Frank’s supposed sexual perversions (sounding a lot like the most ferocious attackers of Roman Polanski today) and suggested that the Jews supporting him either did those sorts of things themselves or at the very least actively protected other Jews who did. On August 17, 1915, just after he’d been transferred from the holding cell in Atlanta to a state prison, Frank was taken out by a lynch mob made up of some of the most respected officials in Georgia — many of them judges, solicitors general (what Georgia called its prosecutors then) and other community leaders — and hanged after being driven 100 miles (the lynchers used a caravan of cars at a time when automobiles were still a novelty item for the rich) so they could kill him in a grove outside Marietta, Mary Phagan’s home town.

The People v. Leo Frank is one of those bastard creations that increasingly afflict PBS’s schedule — it’s not really a documentary and it’s not really a dramatic film; it has a full cast of actors playing the historical characters in reconstructed scenes, but also has talking-head views of historians and photos of the real people and events, including crime-scene shots of Mary Phagan’s body. (At least Will Janowitz looks strikingly like the real Leo Frank and captures Frank’s habitual nervousness — one of the aspects that made the cops suspect him — quite well.) I’d have preferred more documentary and less drama, especially since the Frank case has been dramatized in at least two previous movies (a 1988 TV-movie called The Murder of Mary Phagan, with Jack Lemmon playing Governor Slaton; and, in disguised form, in the 1937 film They Won’t Forget, with Claude Rains playing the William Smith character — renamed “Griffin,” also Rains’ name in The Invisible Man — as well as in the recent musical Parade, whose author, Alfred Uhry, was briefly interviewed in this show), but the story is still fascinating for its network of prejudices, the bizarre justifications the lynchers used, and some of the ways the South (at least the white Southern leadership) opposed civil rights struggles into the 1960’s, blaming them on “outside agitators” and coming up with preposterous justifications for lynchings and other murders, often (as in the Mississippi killings of 1964) committed by the very people supposedly charged with investigating them and bringing the criminals to justice.

It also touched on the abysmal sloppiness of police work a century ago; one point Russell Miller made in his biography of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is that Conan Doyle was more aware of the importance of securing a crime scene and extracting all possible evidence from it than most real-life policemen of his day (in story after story Conan Doyle had Holmes lament that potentially vital clues had been destroyed by the stupidity of police officers who didn’t secure the scene), and the Frank case is one of many in which crucial evidence was lost or destroyed. And it’s impossible to look at Thomas E. Watson’s role in stoking the fires that led to the lynching without regarding him as an ancestor of modern-day talk radio, especially hosts like Steve Yuhas who have openly said on air that Barack Obama has to be removed from the presidency before the next election. It’s a sad and sorry commentary on the persistence of this meanness in American politics (perhaps in human nature!), this overwhelming desire to separate humanity into the Good and True on one side and everyone else on the other, and to consign everyone who isn’t white, Christian and straight into the “other” category that we really don’t have to bother with and we can oppress and deal with exactly as we please.