Conley’s Charge Turns Frank Trial Into Fight ‘To Worse Than Death’

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

Atlanta Georgian
August 5th, 1913


Black and sinister, depressing in its every aspect and horrible in its gloom, the testimony of Jim Conley in the Frank case was given to the court and the jury under direct examination Monday.

The shadow of the negro had loomed like a frightful cloud over the courtroom for days—the negro himself came into the case Monday. And he came into it in an awful and unspeakably sensational way!

The public was prepared for most that Conley said—it was not quite prepared for all he said.

The State, in its direct examination of Conley, climaxed its case against Frank most thrillingly and most abhorrently. If that climax is not rendered impossible, ridiculous absurd by the defense, then the young factory superintendent is doomed.

It is, indeed, now a battle to the death—and to worse than the death!

Either it is Leo Frank’s life or Jim Conley’s life that must pay the forfeit of Mary Phagan’s untimely and tragically miserable end!

Can the negro’s story be broken down?

Either it is a pack of horrible and monstrously grotesque lies, or it is a horrible and monstrous recital of truth.

Which is it?

That is the problem that MUST be solved—that is the puzzle that MUST be unraveled, if it be so that “truth is mighty and will prevail!”

Burden Falls on Rosser.

And into the hands of one man—Luther Z. Rosser—has been intrusted the responsibility of breaking it down so completely that Leo Frank may go forth from that stuffy little courtroom a free man, enjoying again even a measure of the respect and esteem of his fellow men.

Within the massive head of Rosser alone is the mental machinery moving now to free Frank. Rosser is conducting the cross-examination of Conley. He is a pastmaster in the art of examining witnesses.

True, the keen intelligence of that other remarkable lawyer, Reuben Arnold, is aiding and abetting the big man—but the result of the crossing of Conley, upon which this case unquestionably will turn, will be either Rosser’s victory or Rosser’s defeat.

He must feel to the full the weight of responsibility upon him.

Never before in all his long and successful career at the bar, perhaps, has so much depended upon his skill and knowledge of the law, and his remarkable ability at making witnesses tell not only all they wish to tell, but much more than that, if necessary!

Conley is NOT same sort of witness Newt Lee was.

To begin with Conley is seeking to save his own neck, the while he seeks to place the noose about Frank’s.

Gives His Evidence Glibly.

He is far too sharp a negro not to know, despite his seeming ignorance in some directions, that failure to convict Frank likely would mean Conley’s subsequent conviction. He knows that as a confessed accessory after the fact, the worst he faces is a few years in the penitentiary, whereas as the principal to the murder, he would face the gallows.

He delivered his testimony as glibly as if he were a phonograph set going for the purpose.

He rattled off so rapidly at times that it was difficult to follow. He remembered minute details of this, that, and the other—he seemed to have an almost superhuman memory under direct examination, unwinding his tale with few and far between suggestions from the Solicitor.

His Memory Was Marvelous!

It was only when he got to the cross-examination by Mr. Rosser, however, that he recalled possessing, among his other mental assets, even a little bit of a forgettery!

Before the cross-examination had proceeded very far, nevertheless, Conley recalled that he could forget.

Rosser already has mixed him badly in many ways.

If Conley is telling the truth—which many people believe—even in the main, Mr. Rosser will never shake him to pieces, however much he may shake him in spots.

If he is lying—which many people also believe—Mr. Rosser will shake him to pieces before he turns him loose—it hardly can be doubted.

With Conley’s story sustained, despite the fire of Rosser’s cross-examination, Frank is undone and lost forever, and every damning circumstance cited against him will loom large and conclusive in the matter of shaping the verdict and public opinion thereafter.

With Conley’s story crushed and flattened out as a tissue of lies related to save his own neck, all the circumstances cited against Frank will be rated inconsequential and of no account—for without Conley to back them up they are worthless.

The purely circumstantial case against Frank is not strong—the State doubtless recognizes that it has wisely and consistently shaped its every endeavor toward Conley as the climax of its story.

As the ugly story was falling from Conley’s thick lips, I watched Frank. It will not do to say he was unconcerned. No person in all that crowded courtroom was more concerned than he.

More than once he wet his lips with his tongue and gripped the arms of his chair tightly. He kept his eye glued to the negro most of the time moreover—and occasionally he reached backward, gently and composedly to grasp the hand of his wife—and always her hand met his more than halfway.

There he sat—flanked by the two women in all the world most deeply concerned in the outcome of this trial—Lucille Frank, the wife, and the elder woman, the mother. The one young and beautiful, the other growing old, but still handsome after her type.

There is something infinitely bewildering in the situation in that courthouse to-day.

Is the awful story Jim Conley rattled off as unconcernedly as he might recite the details of a “crap” game TRUE?

If it be true, who in all the wide, wide world has been so outrageously and so inhumanly wronged as those two women sitting there beside the defendant?

Better for Mary Phagan that she sleeps in her little grave, her memory sweet and fragrant as the flowers blooming about her last resting place, than Lucille Frank—and the mother—if Conley says is true!

Others Face Hell on Earth.

At least, to the dead girl has come forgetfulness—and if Frank is guilty, never again to either of the other two women shall peace come this side of the grave.

If only little Mary Phagan might speak; if only she might say just ONE little word directing each and all of us to the TRUTH of this amazing, terrible and strange story!

She could say—and who can doubt that she, purified of death and utterly unafraid, would say—the one impregnable word of truth so necessary in the present moment?

It is in the crises of the present kind, when reason reels and staggers before the sinister and deadly story Jim Conley tells, that poor, weak mortals grope and seek to seize upon the friendly hand of some unseen and infallible Power, to ask, like a child in distress for guidance and the strength to see the light!

Is the word of this negro Conley—many times a confessed liar, many times a “jailbird,” many times a loafer and a street vagabond—to serve the purpose of crushing utterly the young superintendent of the pencil factory, heretofore of unblemished character and reputation?

Is it to serve the frightful purpose of stabbing the wife and mother to the heart forever and forever, to blacken and make unthinkable the memory of the husband and son?

Story Is Not Impossible.

Can it be the TRUTH that Jim Conley speaks?

Yes, it can be the truth.

It is seemingly far beyond the range of the probable, perhaps, but it is not beyond the range of the possible.

It is possible that Conley is telling things as they actually happened, even though lying in parts—it is possible, if not probable.

It must be remembered that the defense as yet has introduced no witnesses. Its case still is to be made out. Whatever damage it has sustained—and it has suffered heavily, even at best, it must be admitted—whatever damage it has sustained at the hands of the State’s witness (and such advantages as it has gained—and it has gained some advantages—it has gained at those same hands.

Will its own witnesses fare better under cross-examination from the other side than some of the State’s witnesses have, and yet may fare under the pitless fire of Rosser?

When Conley’s horrible story was finished under the direct examination, the spectators had been shocked into almost irresponsible indignation—they were in no condition to judge with any approximate degree of fairness the truth or the falsity of it, in any aspect of those things.

Rational men and women, honest men and women, men and women willing for the right to prevail, and praying that only the right MAY prevail, still are struggling to keep their minds open and free of prejudice and immature conclusion.

Why not, then, resolve in your heart and mind this: WHATEVER THE JURY SHALL SAY, THAT SHALL SPEAK THE TRUTH OF THIS TRIAL!

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Atlanta Georgian, August 5th 1913, “Conley’s Charge Turns Frank Trial Into Fight ‘To Worse Than Death,’ Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)