Rosser’s Examination of Lee Just a Shot in Dark; Hoped to Start Quarry

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

Atlanta Georgian
July 30th, 1913


If Mr. Luther Z. Rosser’s bite is one-half so dangerous as his growl undoubtedly is disconcerting and awe-inspiring, there will be little save shreds and patches of the prosecution left when the State comes eventually to sum up its case against Leo Frank.

Rosser’s examination of Newt Lee was one of the most nerve racking and interesting I ever listened to.

It reminded me much of a big mastiff worrying and teasing a huge brown rat, and grimly bent eventually upon the rat’s utter annihilation.

A witness up against one of Rosser’s might bombardments is in a decidedly uncomfortable predicament—no doubt about that!

True, Lee snapped back at Rosser and growled angrily every little bit, and strove this way and that to get away from the insistent prod of the tremendously menacing mass of humanity forever in front of him, worrying, teasing, sneering, and threatening, but he could not.

Always the terrible Rosser was there—and so, every little bit, Lee would fall back into the witness chair, with an audible sigh, and say, ever so softly and abjectly, “Yassir, yassir, Ah guess dat’s so!”

Sometimes Lee Countered.

Bulldozer Rosser may be, browbeater perhaps, he still is far and away the most picturesque figure in the trial as it has progressed to date.

The Solicitor General outspokenly resents the Rosser methods of examining witnesses and endeavors with all the resourcefulness at his command to counteract them and set them so far at naught as he may—but just as plainly he fears the powerful figure leading the case for Frank, and dreads to the very limit the effectiveness of his methods.

It must be remembered that the State is relying largely upon the testimony of two ignorant negroes for the conviction of Frank.

Conley is the State’s star witness and Newt Lee is its second best bet. Both are densely ignorant, and theoretically at least, more or less easy marks for the Rosser method of examination.

Time and again, Lee rallied and came back at his tormenter with telling effect—it is likely altogether that more than once the jury’s sympathy went out to Lee in large measure, while Rosser was grilling him—and to the darkey’s occasional sallies and adroit sidesteps, the spectators in the courtroom frequently responded readily with approving titters and guffaws.

Still, more than once Rosser mixed the negro up somewhat—and we may hear more of that when the adroit Arnold comes to the bar for argument.

‘Rapiers’ Second the ‘Clubs.’

And so, it seems to me now that the battle is to divide after this fashion: Rosser is to wield the bludgeon, and Dorsey is to neutralize or ward of its shock wherever and whenever he can, while Arnold and Hooper are to undertake the more skillful and artistic, but none the less deadly, rapier work.

Rosser is to smash and bang things around, and Arnold is to puncture, thrust and parry.

It will be, in those circumstances, full and fair time from small boys and persons of hesitating dispositions to stand from under—but neither Dorsey nor Hooper is made of that variety of human clay.

“Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,” of course—and Luther Rosser has scored many a brilliant victory in the past through the simple process of making the other fellow mad.

And he can make Dorsey mad, too—and does, frequently!

If only Dorsey had Hooper’s poise and unruffled calm, the assaults of Rosser and the aggravating persistence of the man would be as harmless as the shots of a popgun against a modern man-of-war.

Dorsey Falls Into Trap.

But Dorsey isn’t Hooper, and the consequence is that Dorsey gets very angry now and then, which is exactly what Rosser is driving at—and when Dorsey communicates some of his distress of mind and temper to the witness on the stand, the psychological condition Rosser is fighting for has been set up, and if he doesn’t make the most of it every time it happens, his hand will have lost its cunning and he will belie and contradict a lifetime achievement at the bar.

At times, there is something grimly humorous about Rosser—as when, having befuddled a witness and exasperated him to the very verge of madness, Mr. Rosser will say, with studied sarcasm and belittling emphasis, “Oh, well, we’ll not quarrel about that—we’ll not quarrel, you and I!”

If that doesn’t make the witness a thousand times madder than ever before, I can not imagine why!

When it comes to handling a witness of the caliber of Sergeant Dobbs, Mr. Rosser does not perform any particular transformation in his make-up or his methods.

He essays no Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde roles—he ever and always is the same big, massive, powerful, crushing, snorting, fighting, destroying mass of humanity, under full mental and physical steam ahead!

His Scowl Good Argument.

If anybody in this world is capable of lifting himself by his own bootstraps, unquestionably Mr. Rosser is the man!

No one in all the courtroom watches him so closely, and apparently so analytically, as does the defendant’s wife, Lucille Frank.

Frank watches him rather curiously, even quizzically; the elder Mrs. Frank—the defendant’s mother—not quite so closely—but the prisoner’s wife rarely takes her eyes off her husband’s leading counsel.

And there is something amazingly fascinating about Mr. Rosser.

He is fascinating physically—of course his superb mental equipment is not debatable—much after the same fashion that old John L. Sullivan used to be.

In [several words illegible] of old John L’s scowls often served to scare an adversary instantly into a doubt that a second scowl not infrequently evolved rapidly into despair.

Old Jake Kilrain told me once in Washington city that he never was genuinely afraid but once in his life, and that was the first time his ancient enemy, John L. Sullivan, frowned ferociously upon him in the beginning of their first fight—and that he (Kilrain) never got over it.

Both Center on Purpose.

“If only once or twice he had smiled upon me and looked the least little bit pleasant. I might have licked him,” said white-haired old Jake Kilrain, but he never did once—indeed, I never once saw Sullivan smile while fighting in all the days I have known him!”

And I mean it as a compliment to Luther Z. Rosser when I credit him with that same sort of terrible definiteness of purpose in trying a case.

Mr. Rosser lets it be seen, cautiously and carefully at first, that he had a deadly intent toward Lee. He made it plain by an adroit development of questioning, that he proposed showing, if he could, more in Lee’s connection with this crime than the public latterly has imagined to be possible.

Eventually it dawned upon the thick-witted negro there in the witness chair that Rosser was leading up, through all those puzzling and worrying questions, to a fixed and steady mark, and Lee could be seen plainly to squirm and twist as he drew inevitably nearer and nearer the perilous brink.

Story Virtually Unshaken.

He began to shift and back away from questions, to complain of inaccuracy in the stenographic reports of the Coroner’s inquest, to evade and become indefinite. Evidently, at one time, the negro was growing afraid, and he undertook to be as cunning and as cautious as he might.

And yet, with all of that, he stood the ordeal pretty well, and came through relatively unhurt and certainly not seriously damaged. I think his evidence, as an isolated thing, amounts to little anyway—but I think I went to the jury fairly well unchallenged, at that!

The fighting so far, in its fuller aspect, has been so plainly skirmishing and jockeying for position that many spectators must have wondered often, as I did, what sort of accounting that other and far more important sable figure in the Frank trial, Jim Conley, might be expected to give of himself under the merciless fire of Rosser.

It is about the negro Conley that the battle will reach its zenith and the fighting will be the fiercest.

After Conley has been disposed of one way or the other, the case against Frank will be either up or down, according to the status of Conley when his remarkable story has been up to the ultimate test.

Will Conley Stand the Test?

Will Conley be as nimble-witted as Lee was?

Will he be able to withstand the onslaughts of Rosser and Arnold, even approximately as well as Newt stood them?

If he does——

Conley thus far has held himself together pretty well. His examinations, however, have been altogether one-sided. A very different story may be told after he has been up against the best legal talent the defense could secure.

Newspapers have reported from time to time, how Conley was “grilled” by thus and so—never a party to the defense—and it has been related how well he “stuck to his story” when, after three trials, he apparently succeeded in getting hold of a story he could stick to overnight as a fundamental proposition; but whether the word “grilled” should not really have been “drilled” never has been perfectly clear in my mind.

Conley ought to have his story well in hand by now, in any event; and so, if it is a true story, neither Mr. Rosser nor Mr. Arnold will succeed in breaking him down.

On the other hand, if Conley relates an untrue story, surely Rosser and Arnold will be able to locate the loose joints in it, and when they do Conley should read as readily as anybody the big and sinister danger signal that there and then will loom significantly ahead of him.

Rosser Shoots in Dark.

As for the examination of Newt Lee by Mr. Rosser, it impressed me often as a mere shooting in the dark, hoping to hit something.

To my mind there is nothing much to Lee save and excepting the one fact that he discovered the dead body of little Mary Phagan in the factory cellar.

He is a genuine negro, with all of a negro’s superstitious antipathy for a dead body. He went into the cellar on a perfectly natural and ordinary mission, and there he discovered the body. Just so soon as he satisfied himself as to what it was, he undoubtedly did as he swore, “light a rag out of thar!”

Immediately he called the police, as he had been instructed to do by Frank, when he (Lee) first was employed as a night watchman in the factory.

That is all he knows about the crime—and it is all Mr. Rosser ever got out of him, and ever will get out of him.

The remainder of his testimony is relatively unimportant, although, to be sure, there are bits of it that will serve to account for any seeming unnaturalness in the behavior of Frank just prior to his departure from the factory Saturday afternoon and later along in the evening.

Battle Has Just Begun.

The battle for Leo Frank’s life, liberty and honor as a man, the fight to clear his home of the shadow of tragedy forever, has hardly yet begun.

The fighting so far has been indecisive, and to neither side has fallen any advantage worth reckoning upon.

The State has sustained itself very well because it hasn’t lost anything—and about as much may be said for the defense.

And not until Jim Conley gets into the case will the really big guns be unlimbered.