Ignorance of Negro Witnesses Helps Them When on the Stand

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

Atlanta Constitution
August 6th, 1913

By Britt Craig.

Sometimes it is lucky to be ignorant. Most people don’t believe this, but it has been proven true in the cases of Newt Lee and Jim Conley in facing the nerve-racking cross-examination of Luther Rosser.

The average white man in Jim’s fix would last just several minutes it is likely – perhaps even less. And if he were a cigarette fiend–

There have been many interesting features to the Frank trial but chief of them all is the manner in which these two negroes have stood grilling of attorneys for the defense proving themselves the sturdiest witnesses presented by the state.

Jim Has No Cares.

Equipped for the ordeal by a bath from a fire hose, a clean shirt and a shaved head, Jim Conley faced Mr. Rosser on Monday afternoon without a nerve in his [1 word illegible], with hardly a worry and no idea of what would happen, save that he was going to tell the white folks all about the crime and would have the center of the stage for awhile.

The formidable Mr. Rosser opened up [words illegible] with a voice on the order of a lady lobbyist trying to put through a pet scheme and asked him simple easy little questions, like the spelling of cat and dog and apple.

No Worries for Jim.

Jim answered them all readily, willingly and essayed to spell cat, but overlook the “c”. In its absence he used a “k”. But that was immaterial and Jim never worried. Mr. Rosser wheedled and coaxed and cajoled.

Jim sat in one position, head erect, never turning eyes riveted on those of his questioner. He never used a handkerchief, never ran his hand across his brow, never twiddled his fingers, never shifted his legs. He sat there immobile, impassive waiting for what ever might happen next.

If he couldn’t find answers he’d dart for his various havens of refuge.

“I don’t remember,” “I don’t think so,” maybe “so I don’t know exactly.”

It is an ordeal that but few white men could undergo successfully. To sit in the same cramped position in which he has remained throughout the proceeding is enough to stir any Anglo-Saxon, to a spirit of restlessness. To remain for hours cigaretteless, tobaccoless, is enough to tear the soul of those who indulge.

Long and Incessant Questioning.

Mr. Rosser dallied with him taunted him plumbed the depths of his natural all the while he plied innumerable questions that seem as immaterial as the sands of a beach.

“Jim, did this man of whom you speak wear a hat?”
“Yes, sir.”

“Did he take it off?”
“I don’t remember.”

“Was his head bald?”
“I think it was—a little bit.”

“Did you observe his head closely?”
“Did I do what?”
“Did you get up close so you could see his head?”
“No, sir, not exactly.”

“Did he wear a black suit?”
“I think so.”

“Did he have a vest?”
“I don’t remember.”

“Did he keep his hands in his pockets?”
“I don’t remember.”

“Did he have rings on his fingers?”
“I didn’t notice.”

And thus it went all throughout the long and tedious hours. The brains of the learned white man pitted against the stupidity of the negro in an effort to entangle him.

Never Budged From Position.

One thing was remarkable about Conley. He never budged from his position. His hands seldom moved. Neither do his eyes. His feet are planted firmly on the floor and never change. There doesn’t seem to be a nerve in his system.

But how would the average white man stand the pressure? Even though he were telling the truth—the whole truth at that—how would his nerves and strength and mental equipment bear up under Mr. Rosser’s merciless bombardment for hours and hours at a time? Take John Black for instance. He has been before Rosser before. He is an experienced, hardened detective to whom courts and lawyers and cross-examinations are every day affairs.

John went upon the stand and met his Waterloo. Ultimately, he was forced to stay.

“I don’t like to admit that I’m bumfuzzled, Mr. Rosser, but you certainly have got me all crossed up. I don’t know where I stand.”

But one can’t blame him much. He’s a white man—a man of nerves, a man of the finer making who fretted at the grilling.

A white man in Conley’s place—by that is meant the average man—would, no doubt fret and chafe in his seat. His answers would be vague and shortcoming. Instead of meeting every question fairly and squarely with no view to what might be the consequences he would plan and strive to foresee the effect his answer might have. He would work himself into a befuddle mental state, eventually losing all perspective.

No Longer Good Witness.

Once wrought up a man no longer is efficient as a witness. He then becomes a picnic for his questioner. A man of intellect who sits and essays to meet each query with replies meant to gain his own ends meant to produce a desired effect soon loses out before the volleys of insignificant questions fired at him.

The result?

Well, in most cases, the victim would mortgage his soul for relief and a cigarette.

But with a man of Jim Conley’s case it’s wonderfully different.

Jim doesn’t strive to meet every question with an effective answer. He likes the first reply that enters his mind [words illegible]. He doesn’t look forward to what’s going to happen next. His mind is centered on what’s now going on and the future matter not how near it be must [1 word illegible] are of itself. Consequently, what little intellect he possesses isn’t affected by worry. He takes what comes and what goes with whatever he has at his command and lets it go at that.

Ignorance Wins Here.

Which shows in the minds of many the value of ignorance against intellect—the brute against the finer nature, the savage against the civilized.

In the realms of business and society, civilization relegates ignorance to the dim ages but on the witness stand it is sometimes different.

Jim Conley and Newt Lee have proved that much—Jim Conley, the self-admitted accessory to Georgia’s most hideous murder and old man Newt Lee, it’s discoverer.

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Atlanta Constitution, August 6th 1913, “Ignorance of Negro Witnesses Helps Them When on the Stand,” Leo Frank case newspaper article series (Original PDF)