I just brought The Ethics Alarms Heroes’ Hall of Honor up to date. There are 44 men and women whose inspiring stories reside there, and I know who #45 will be: John Marshall “Jack” Slaton (December 25, 1866 – January 11, 1955),the 60th Governor of Georgia.
This won’t be the official entry for John Slaton; I want to do him justice, and the story of his moment of principle and sacrifice is not only complicated, but I am having a hard time settling the facts. The short version is this:
Mary Phagan, 13, an employee at Atlanta’s National Pencil Company where Leo Frank was the manager, died of strangulation on April 26, 1913. Her body was discovered in the factory’s cellar the next morning. Over the course of their investigation, Atlanta police arrested several men, including the night watchman Newt Lee, Frank, and Jim Conley, a janitor at the factory. Lee and Conley were black; Frank was Jewish. Though this was the height of Jim Crow in the South, prejudice against Jews was as strong in Atlanta as racism.
On May 24, 1913, Frank was indicted on a charge of murder and the case was tried at Fulton County Superior Court beginning on July 28. The prosecution’s key witness was Conley, who described himself as an accomplice, assisting Frank in disposing the girl’s body. Frank’s defense lawyer argued that Conley was the real killer.
The jury pronounced Leo Frank guilty verdict on August 25, 1913. Then followed a series of unsuccessful appeals, the last being before the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected it in April of 1915. Georgia Governor John M. Slaton was a popular figure about to leave office, and considered a rising political star whose ascension to the U.S. Senate was likely, if not a forgone conclusion. It was assumed that he would quickly reject Frank’s request for a pardon, given the extensive appeals and the overwhelming public outrage regarding Mary Phagan’s murder.
Those assumptions were wrong. A trial lawyer before entering politics, the Governor reviewed the evidence, acquired some evidence that had not been presented at trial , and interviewed some of the witnesses, including Conley. who had changed his story several times. Slaton also heard arguments from both the prosecution and defense.
Although he knew, and had been warned, that taking any action favorable to Leo Frank would not only end his political career in Georgia but also place him and his wife in mortal peril, Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence from capital punishment to life imprisonment. In his official statement, he wrote,
I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation, but I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience, which would remind me in every thought that I, as a Governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right.
The governor’s review of the evidence and the trial transcript convinced him that Frank had been victimized by manipulated testimony and questionable witnesses, that Jim Conley was not credible, and that there was more than enough exculpatory evidence for the jury to have found Frank not guilty. Indeed, the judge presiding over the trial announced from the bench that he was not convinced that Frank was guilty, but chose not to dismiss the jury’s guilty verdict as he had the power to do. The evidence against Frank was circumstantial, and Georgia’s Solicitor General admitted as much. Under Georgia’s statutes, a conviction of murder on circumstantial evidence allowed the trial judge to sentence the defendant to life imprisonment rather than death, but the judge, even with his own stated doubts, sentenced Frank to hang anyway. For all these reasons, Gov. Slaton decided that he had to commute Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment in the interest of justice, and he did so just days before leaving office in June of 1915.
It didn’t matter, at least to Leo Frank. Twenty-five citizens of Atlanta invaded the prison farm where Frank was being held, and lynched him. In November of 1915, some of the men in the lynching party, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, joined with some others to burn a cross on Stone Mountain and announce the founding of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
I have always believed that Slaton’s courageous act is not better known because of moral luck. It did no good, you see. He didn’t save Leo Frank’s life, and Frank’s innocence has never been conclusively proven.
After Frank’s clemency was announced, a mob threatened the governor at his home, and the Georgia National Guard was called upon to protect him. Slaton left the state for a decade, and never held another publicly elected position. He returned to Georgia to practice law, and served as president of the Georgia Bar Association as well as chairing the Board of Law Examiners for twenty-nine years.
The controversy over Mary Phagan’s murder, however, continued, in fact, continues to this day. In 1982, Atlanta lawyers Charles Wittenstein and Dale Schwartz sought a posthumous pardon for Leo Frank based on the revelations of 83-year-old Alonzo Mann, who had been Frank’s office assistant when he was just 14 years old. Mann swore under oath that on the day of the murder, he entered the factory lobby and saw Jim Conley carrying Phagan’s body. Conley had threatened to kill the boy if he told anyone about what he had seen. The elderly Mann agreed to take a polygraph test, and passed.
Nonetheless, the application for a posthumous pardon for Frank was vigorously opposed by the Phagan family and relatives of Hugh Dorsey, Frank’s prosecutor, who himself went on to become a governor of Georgia. The Georgia Pardon and Paroles board announced,
“After exhaustive review and many hours of deliberation, it is impossible to decide conclusively the guilt or innocence of Leo M. Frank. For the board to grant a pardon, the innocence of the subject must be shown conclusively.”
Wittenstein and Schwartz refused to give up, and reapplied for a pardon in 1986. This time, they argued that Georgia had failed to protect Frank from lynching, and owed him an expression of fault and regret. The board agreed and Frank was pardoned, but not exonerated. And the case still roils: In early May of last year, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced that he will reopen the case. The review is being supervised by the newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit, a panel created to look into cold cases, and former Georgia governor Roy Barnes serves as a consultant. When Howard made his announcement at a news conference, Barnes said, “There is no doubt in my mind that we’ll prove that Leo Frank is not guilty.”
I have not been able to determine where that investigation stands, or if it has continued. That’s one of the obstacles to my completing Slaton’s essay for the Hall.
In 1988, “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” a mini-series scripted by Larry McMurtry and starring Jack Lemmon as Slaton, Charles Dutton as Conley, Richard Jourdan as Dorsey and many other terrific actors like Kevin Spacey, Robert Prosky, Cynthia Nixon and William H. Macy, won a Peabody Award. You can view it on Amazon Prime. In 1964, one of my favorite forgotten TV series, “Profiles in Courage,” featured Walter Mathau as John Slaton. You can see it here.