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.