Atlanta police and the GBI are also assisting in the overall effort to answer lingering questions about the case, as Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced in March.
"We're going to look at all of the homicides that involved children at the same age and methods as in the Wayne Williams case," Howard said Tuesday. "We're going to collect all the forensic evidence we can and see where it leads us."
The Frank case helped inspire the creation of the new unit, he said.
» Authorities plan to re-test Atlanta Child Murders evidence
» 100 years later, Leo Frank lynching still resonates
Frank, a Jewish pencil factory superintendent, was sentenced to death in 1915 for raping and killing 13-year-old Mary Phagan. The verdict was based largely on the testimony of a janitor, Jim Conley, aided by anti-Semitic fervor. In 1982, a death bed confession by Alonzo Mann, a former office boy at the factory, confirmed what many thought all along. Mann said he witnessed Conley carrying Phagan’s body to the basement of the factory on the day of her death. He kept silent, he said, because Conley threatened to kill him.
Georgia’s governor at the time of the Frank trial, John Slaton, commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison. Soon after, a group of Cobb County civic leaders — Phagan was from there — forcibly abducted Frank from a state prison farm in Milledgeville, returned to Marietta and hanged him from an oak tree on the property of a former sheriff, William J. Frey.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who will serve as a consultant to the Conviction Integrity Unit, had lobbied the district attorney to re-examine Frank’s case.
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes speaks as Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard (center) and Melissa Redmon (right), a University of Georgia School of Law professor, listen during a news conference to announce the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit at the Fulton County district attorney’s office on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. Barnes and Redmon will serve as consultants to the Conviction Integrity Unit.
At around the same time, Howard had learned of new evidence that cast doubt on the conviction, under his watch, of Frederick Gant for the 2002 murders of Jonathan Wilder and Zerious Jordan. Gant was indicted 11 years later after a neighbor, Major Smith, told police he witnessed Gant shoot the men. After Gant was sentenced to life in prison, his defense lawyer came forward with evidence that placed Smith in jail, under an alias, at the time of the murders. A new trial was ordered, without Smith’s testimony, and Gant was acquitted.
“That convergence of things … showed to me that clearly something needed to be done,” said Howard, adding that his efforts to fund the unit were denied three times by Fulton commissioners. “What we’re going to do is give up one of our regular prosecutorial positions and turn that over to this Conviction Integrity Unit.”
Asked if he’s concerned about the financial implications, through civil litigation, that could result from re-examining closed cases, Howard said, “My belief is if someone was wrongly convicted they should be compensated.”
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Steven Lebow, rabbi of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, who for years has lobbied the state to pardon Frank, expressed gratitude that his conviction is finally being reviewed.
“If you want to make the future good, you have to make the past right,” Lebow said.
Barnes said he is convinced that will happen.
"There is no doubt in my mind, and we'll prove it at the appropriate time, that Leo Frank was not guilty," Barnes said. "We can't right all wrongs. However, I think it's a bad thing if we can never admit we're wrong. This gives us a good view of history to make sure we've got it right."
According to a joint study by the University of Michigan and Michigan State University law schools and the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, 33 Conviction Integrity Units had been formed nationwide through 2017. And in that time CIUs were responsible for 269 exonerations, the study found.