Roy Barnes: It's time to pardon Leo Frank

Former Gov. Roy Barnes opened his memorial to Leo Frank with a confession. His wife Marie's grandfather was part of the 28-man lynching party that dragged Frank from a Milledgeville prison and hung him at a forlorn patch of land in Marietta.

Frank was a Jewish factory superintendent convicted of the 1913 murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan on circumstantial evidence as much of the city was wrapped up in racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. His death sentence was commuted by Gov. John Slaton, but he was seized by a Marietta posse and strung up on an oak tree along where Interstate 75 now runs.

The case still resonates today, as our AJC colleague Christian Boone notes in his can't-miss takeout on the lynching. As many as a half of Georgia's 3,000 Jews fled after the hanging, and the murderous act helped spark two groups with drastically different missions: The Anti-Defamation League and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

The state Board of Pardons and Paroles admitted in 1986 that Georgia officials failed to protect Frank and prosecute his suspected killers, a lynch mob that included many of Marietta's elite. But it sidestepped the issue of his guilt or innocence. Barnes says it's time to change that.

"His conviction should be set aside and he should be given a full pardon," said Barnes, who said he came to the conclusion when researching the case after losing reelection in 2002. "I don't think there's any question in my mind there's reasonable doubt, and I think he should be exonerated."

Barnes is not alone. Rabbi Steven Lebow, who leads the nearby Temple Kol Emeth, has lobbied for Frank's pardon. And former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, at another event Monday, added his voice to the group urging calling on state officials to clear Frank's name.

"We can't bring Leo Frank back to life, but we can see to it that he is exonerated," Fletcher said, according to the Daily Report.

As Boone notes, though, that seems a tough sell:

Without conclusive evidence, and with none of Frank’s descendants pushing for it, a full pardon is unlikely. There is little chance closure will ever come to the Frank case, and unsolved mysteries rarely fade from memory.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.