Clash Comes Over Evidence Of Detective John Starnes

Another in our series of new transcriptions of contemporary articles on the Leo Frank case.

Atlanta Constitution
July 30th, 1913

When Sergeant Dobbs was called from the stand Detective J. M. Starnes, prosecutor of Frank and a detective attached to police headquarters was called in. He has been associated with the solicitor general throughout the Phagan investigation.

The defense and prosecution clashed in perhaps their most spectacular battle over an attempt of Attorney Rosser to force the detective into recalling the exact words of a portion of his testimony at the coroner’s inquest.

An argument was advanced by both Attorneys Dorsey and Hooper and each member of Frank’s counsel Attorneys Arnold and Rosser.

The apparent motive of the defense was to discredit certain portions of Starnes story relative to his telephonic conversation with the accused superintendent when he notified him of the tragedy at daybreak Sunday morning.

The result was a rule by Judge Roan to allow the defense to remind the witness of the exact statement he was wished to recall the exact date and circumstances. It was followed by an amendment, the question finally going unasked.

An Effort to Impeach.

During the course of the detective’s testimony the solicitor general accused the defense of endeavoring to impeach Starnes. Starnes was told, however, by Attorney Rosser that no effort was being made along this line. Starnes answered:

“I hope not, because I’m trying to tell the truth.”

“When did you first reach the pencil factory?” the solicitor questioned.

“About 6 o’clock on the morning of April 27,” he answered.

“What happened?”

Found a Girl’s Hat.

“I saw Sergeant Dobbs and he carried me into the basement. We looked around and I found a girl’s hat. We inspected the broken staple in the rear door.”

“Was the body there at that time?”


“How was the rear door supposed to open?”

“It slid south.”

“What did you do later in the day?”

“I went to police headquarters and with Chief Lanford. Detective Black took Newt Lee back to the pencil factory. We went into the basement and later I called Superintendent Frank over the telephone.”

“How long did it require to get him.”

“Only a short while. He answered the phone himself.”

“What was the conversation?”

“I asked him if he were superintendent of the pencil factory and he replied that he was. I told him I was a detective and wanted him to come directly to the factory. He said he had not had breakfast. I said I’d send an automobile for him. He asked, ‘Where is the night watchman?’ and I told him he was there. Boots Rogers and John Black went for him in Rogers’ car.”

“Did you tell him what had happened at the factory?”

“No. He didn’t ask.”

“How long was it before he arrived?”

“In a very short time. Not more than thirty minutes.”

“What was Lee’s demeanor when carried back to the plant?”

Conduct Means Much as Words.

An objection to this question was made by the defense. Attorney Arnold declared that the negro’s conduct meant as much as his words.

“This thing,” he said, meaning the trial, “is going entirely too much on looks.”

Judge Roan, however, sustained the solicitor. The witness’ answer was,

“He was calm and composed.”

“Did you observe Frank’s deportment?”

“He appeared nervous—different from other men who were around the place.”

“Detail his manners and movements.”

“He just seemed nervous.”

Here Judge Roan asked the witness what he meant by “just nervous.”

“He was nervous and not composed,” was the detective’s answer.

“Where did he go?”

“I don’t know.”

“When was he trembling and nervous?”

“When they first brought him to the factory.”

“Did you talk with him?”


“Did you see any slips punched in the watchman’s clock?”

Saw Watchman’s Slips.

“Yes. About a week afterward I went to the factory late one night after I had gone home and got the watchman to lead me through the building. I took out a slip covering a period from 6 o’clock at night until 6 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock in the afternoon.”

“Subsequent to this did you see any wrapping cord? Where did you get the wrapping cord you obtained at the factory?”

“Yes. On second floor.”

“What did you do with this cord?”

“Saved it.”

“Where did you find this particular cord?” The solicitor displayed several strands of regulation heavy wrapping twine.

“In the delivery department—or finishing room.”

“Will you explain the location of this room on this chart of the factory?”

The witness indicated on the diagram a spot near the metal room on the second floor.

“Were there any other specimens of this cord on the second floor?”

Cords in the Basement.

“I didn’t see any. There were many though in the basement.”

“Did you find anything near the dressing room on the second floor?”

“On the following Monday I saw near the door on the northwest corner a number of spots that resembled blood like the blood spots we found in dressing room No. 7.”

“How far were these spots from the end of the dressing room?”

“About two feet.”

“What did you do upon this discovery?”

“Got a hammer and chisel and chipped out the wood containing the spots.”

“How large were the chips?”

“About the size of the palm of the hand.”

“Find anything else beside blood?”

“Some white stuff like white wash that had apparently been spread to conceal the spots.”

“Were there means of locking the doorway to the rear stairs?”


Blood Found on Nail.

“With the shutters closed on the north side of the building, is the metal room dark or light?”

“About half and half.”

“Did you find blood anywhere else?”

“Several spots on a nail I found in the metal room.”

“Were there any spots on the floor where this nail was found?”

“Yes, in spots for a small area.”

“Was there any of this white stuff there?”


“Find any other blood spots?”

“Yes, in finger prints on the rear door.”

“Explain the location of blood spots relative to dressing room No. 7 and the elevator.”

“The first spot was about 50 feet from the front stairway and the second about 30 feet from the double doors that divided the metal department from the front of the second floor.”

Attorney Rosser took up the examination.

Says Staple Is Bent.

“Let’s see Starnes about some of these things to which you are testifying: he began picking up the metal staple that had been pulled from the basement door and holding it to view of the witness, ‘This staple is bent, isn’t it?’”

“Yes, a little bit.”

“Well,” retorted the attorney, “you can’t expect such a little thing as this to be bent a quarter of a mile, can you?”

“I can’t see very well without glasses.”

“Oh, you’re getting old like I am—that’s what the matter with you.”

“To say the least,” Mr. Rosser continued, “its prongs are not straight by any means. When did you first see it?”

“About 5 or 6 o’clock that Sunday morning.”

“When did you first see Mary Phagan’s hat?”

“At the same time.”

Found It After Three Hours.

“Then you found it three hours after the police got to the scene?”


“If that be true, they found the shoes on the same trash pile and overlooked the hat?”

“Yes, they said they didn’t suspect it was the girl’s hat.”

“Do you mean to say that a crowd of detectives blundered like that?”

“They weren’t detectives, they were policemen.”

“Did you find anything else?”

“I found a gas pipe on the following Monday.”

“If this pipe was found on Monday, it might not have been there on Saturday?”

“It is possible.”

“What size was it—one quarter of an inch?”

“About that size.”

Defense Concedes Point.

At this juncture the solicitor objected to the question. Mr. Rosser conceded saying,

“Talk kindly and I’ll do anything in the world for you.” He was smiling good naturedly at the table by which sat attorneys for the state.

“You took charge of Newt Lee, didn’t you?” Mr. Rosser continued.

“Yes, Black and I.”

“You kept him in the office, didn’t you?”


“Boots Rogers was in the office with you, eh?”

“I don’t remember.”

Did Not Correct Rogers.

“Did you hear Rogers testify at the inquest?”


“If he made a mistake in his testimony, you didn’t correct him, did you?”

“It wasn’t my business to correct him.”

“Do you mean to say that you who represent truth shouldn’t correct an error that concerns you or your work?”

Mr. Dorsey objected to this. He accused the counsel for the defense of attempting to impeach the detective and of striving to impeach Rogers before the latter had entered the case.

Mr. Rosser declared that Starnes had stood idly by and watched a witness for the state give erroneous testimony. The solicitor contended that it was inadmissible to impeach Rogers which it was apparent the defense was endeavoring to do before Rogers had some into the case.

The solicitor was overruled.

Mr. Rosser continued with his examination.

“You heard him state at the inquest about being in the office, did you not?”

“I think so.”

Attorneys Clash.

“Do you profess to give the words of your conversation with Frank over the telephone the morning of the discovery after three months have elapsed?”

“I will as near as I can.”

“Then if your memory is so good give me the exact words you spoke at the coroner’s inquest.”

The solicitor interposed, saying it was irrelevant to attempt to learn from Starnes what he had testified to at the inquest inasmuch as his statement stood as documentary evidence in form of stenographic notes.

Attorney Arnold arose from the table of the defense counsel saying,

“The solicitor complains of losing time in this case. He is taking up more time by talking than it would require to submit evidence.”

Will Try Case by Law.

Mr. Dorse arose and said,

“I want to try this case according by law if it takes a year.”

Following which, Mr. Arnold again said:

“We don’t want to impeach Starnes. We want to sift him, to determine him—we have a right to. If he remembers one thing perfectly, he can surely remember another. We only want to test his memory—that’s all.”

“They have a right to test his memory on everything but sworn testimony,” said the solicitor. “Otherwise, it’s unfair.”

“You can pick out anything to which he testified in this trial,” said Judge Roan. “That is my ruling.”

Attorney Rosser insisted upon his question, however, Mr. Dorsey arose, exclaiming:

Ask Enforcement of Rule.

“I ask the judge not only to rule, but to enforce the rule.”

“You testified at the inquest to having made Lee rewrite the murder notes, didn’t you?” Mr. Rosser asked the witness. “Give me your exact words.”

Before the witness could answer, Mr. Dorsey interposed:

“He must remind the witness of the exact time and place of the statement to which he has reference.”

Mr. Rosser replied:

“I disclaim any disposition to impeach Officer Starnes.”

An amendment was made to the judge’s decision which permitted the attorney to ask this question:

“Can you recall your exact words at the inquest?”

“I may be able to do so, and I may not.”

Testimony is Important.

“Then, your telephone talk with Frank, as unimportant as you considered it—“

Mr. Dorsey objected, but was overruled.

“Was it an important message—did you consider it so?” Rosser resumed.


“Why? Also, how did you recollect it so well?”

“I had witnesses—Boots Rogers and, I think, Detective Black.”

“Aren’t you mistaken?”

The witness paused, after which he said:

“Maybe so—I believe I am.”

“Some splotches of blood are still on the second floor, aren’t they?”

“I suppose so.”

“It was Monday you found the spots?”


“There was no way of telling how long they had been there, was there?”


Says Floor Is Dirty.

“Isn’t that floor the dirtiest you ever saw?”

“Not the dirtiest, although it’s pretty dirty.”

“Don’t think I’m trying to impeach you, Starnes.”

“I hope not—I’m trying to tell the truth.”

“Do you know whether or not the back doors were open on the day of the tragedy?”

“I do not.”

“Didn’t you find all over the factory strings like this one you have here—the kind of cord found about the girl’s throat?”

“I can’t say it was exactly alike or even made in similar shape.”

“As a matter of fact, there was plenty of cord in all parts of the factory?”

“There generally were pieces of cord in all parts of the building.”

“You are testifying now of facts as you know them, are you not?”

Looks for Purse.


“Did you ever look for Mary Phagan’s purse?”


“Ever look for the artificial flowers and ribbon she wore on her hat?”


“Did you find either?”


The solicitor took up the questioning.

“Do you know, of your own knowledge, whether or not she had a purse with her when she was slain?”


“When you talked to Frank over the telephone that morning, were you guarded in what you said?”

Counsel for Defense Object.

Counsel for the defense objected to this question. Judge Roan ruled that the solicitor could ask the witness only what he had said to the defendant.

“Yes, I was guarded,” admitted the detective.

Rosser took charge of the witness.

“What did you mean when you told a short time ago that your conversation with Frank was casual?”

“A talk between two gentlemen over the telephone?”

“Do you recognize these chips of wood as the places you chiseled from the second floor of the pencil factory—the ones containing the blood spots?”

Witness identified the chip specimens.

At this point, the clothing worn by Mary Phagan when her body was discovered was submitted as evidence. Every piece, including a bloody handkerchief discovered near her body, was admitted without protest.

“Did you see Frank at police headquarters?” questioned Rosser.

“Yes—everyday he was there.”

“Were you there Monday when he was summoned?”

“I believe so.”

Starnes was dismissed from the stand.

The solicitor asked that the chart of the pencil factory, to which he had made frequent reference during all examinations of the day, be admitted as evidence. Attorney Rosser asked first that he be allowed to inspect it.

Protest Against Drawing.

He protested vigorously, saying that the drawing was inadmissible. It had once been used as a newspaper illustration to a story of the Phagan crime. He read from the key words inscribed at the bottom of the chart:

“Black dotted lines indicate course taken by the accused. Cross indicates where the girl was murdered on the second floor.”

He turned to face the solicitor.

“I didn’t think Mr. Dorsey or Mr. Hooper would undertake to put such a thing over on me.”

Dorsey replied:

“I realized that the plat was inadmissible.”

Drawing Will Be Changed.

“The whole drawing is an argumentative picture of the state’s theory,” said Mr. Arnold. “Pictures convey the strongest kind of argument. The dotted lines on this picture are as eloquent as words. A plat that is fair should be nothing but a bare representation of facts.”

The solicitor agreed to remove the key words and lines from the chart.

“A naked plat,” said Judge Roan, “is admissible, but if it contains anything argumentative, it is inadmissible.”

The chart will be changed.

As the clock hands reached 5:07, the judge asked the solicitor if he had a “short witness” which he could place on the stand. Upon being informed that none was available, the session was adjourned until 9 o’clock this morning.