Leo Frank’s trial began on July 28, the hottest part of a steamy Georgia 1913 summer. Irritable but still peaceable crowds gathered outside the courthouse: those fortunate enough to gain access to one of the 250 spectator’s seats sat patiently if uncomfortably in the sweltering courtroom as the prosecution called Fannie Coleman, Mary Phagan’s mother, as the first witness.
Coleman retained her composure throughout most of prosecutor Hugh Dorsey’s opening questions but broke down when asked to identify the clothing Mary Phagan was wearing when her body was found. George Epps, the second witness, testified that he had ridden beside Mary Phagan on the streetcar which brought her to National Pencil. Objections from defense counsel Hugh Rosser left Dorsey’s final question to Epps, “What did she say to you in the car in reference to L.M. Frank?” unanswered.
More interesting was the testimony of the third witness, night watchman Newt Lee. Lee testified that Frank had asked him to come in at 4:00pm that Confederate Memorial Day but then told him when he arrived to come back at 6:00; that he had asked if he could nap in the factory but Frank refused and told he should go out and enjoy the festivities; that Frank had seemed nervous when he punched Lee in at two minutes to six and when he called at 7:00pm to check if everything was all right; and that on Sunday morning he had told the detectives in Lee’s presence that Lee’s time slip was “in order” before later reporting irregularities. Finally he recounted his April 29 meeting with Frank at the police station where he cautioned Lee “if you keep that up we will both go to hell.”
Rosser attempted to shake Lee with cross-examination that intimated Conley was the killer and Lee wrote the notes. But Lee remained adamant that he had nothing to do with the crime and two hours of grilling did nothing to shake him or to cast doubt on his testimony. The defense did better with Detective John Black, casting doubt on the prosecution’s claim that the bloody shirt in Newt Lee’s laundry had been found after Frank suggested police search Lee’s residence.
Rosser hammered at the state’s scant physical evidence, disputing that the stains on the metal room floor were blood at all and noting that the hair could belong to any of the girls who regularly combed and curled their hair in the metal room, while the twine used to choke Phagan could be found not only in the metal room but in many other parts of the building. Then, on Monday, August 4, the prosecution opened the trial’s second week with the testimony of Jim Conley.
Conley gleefully admitted he lied on three affidavits, owned up to his numerous arrests for petty crimes and his time on the chain gang, and “disremembered” anything that might lead him away from his story. The defense wanted the jury to think Conley was the murderer and Frank was being framed. The prosecution’s case– and Conley’s life — rested on him being too ignorant to formulate such an intricate lie.
According to Conley, he had acted as lookout for Frank on the morning of April 26 as he had before. During that time he saw several National Pencil employees go. Finally he saw Mary Phagan go up. After hearing her footsteps going into the office he heard two footsteps going toward the metal room. Then he heard a scream, then silence. Conley was seated there when Monteen Stover came in. (Stover was another important prosecution witness. She claimed she had come in between 12:05 and 12:10 to collect her pay only to find the office empty and the metal room locked. This contradicted Frank’s claim that he never left the office between noon and 1 pm). Conley then dozed off, then awoke to Frank stomping — a signal to lock the door — then whistling for him to come upstairs. Through a combination of pantomime and testimony, Conley described the scene.
[Frank] asked me “Did you see that little girl who passed here just a while ago?” and I told him I saw one come along there and she come back again, and then I saw another one come along there and she hasn’t come back down, and he says, “Well, that one you saw didn’t come back down, she came into my office awhile ago and wanted to know something about her work in my office and I went back there to see if the little girl’s work had come, and I wanted to be with the little girl, and she refused me, and I struck her and I guess I struck her too hard and she fell and hit her head against something, and I don’t know how bad she got hurt. Of course you know I ain’t built like other men.” The reason he said that was, I had seen him in a position I haven’t seen any other man that has got children. I have seen him in the office two or three’ times before Thanksgiving and a lady was in his office, and she was sitting down in a chair and she had her clothes up to here, and he was down on his knees, and she had her hands on Mr. Frank. I have seen him another time there in the packing room’ with a young lady lying on the table, she was on the edge of the table when I saw her.
Conley then described writing the notes as Frank dictated them, bundling Phagan’s body and, with Frank’s aid, taking the plump young woman’s corpse to the elevator. He explained “I was willing to do anything to help Mr. Frank because he was a white man and my superintendent.” (He did not say it, but we can safely assume he also knew what would happen should Frank swear he had come into the room to find Conley looming over a young White girl’s dead body). When Dorsey finished questioning him the real test began: cross-examination by two of the South’s finest lawyers.
Conley may have changed his story several times before settling on the final version, but when he got to the witness stand Rosser and Arnold couldn’t shake him from the details. For sixteen hours over three days they badgered Conley with questions, trying to poke holes in his story and his character. Yet time and again Conley refused to take their bait: the hours Dorsey’s team spent preparing their witness appeared to be supremely well-spent. Finally, the defense motioned that Conley’s testimony concerning sexual matters be stricken from the records: when Judge Leonard Roan denied their request the spectators stomped their feet and cheered until Roan restored order. After a brief redirect from Dorsey, Conley’s ordeal was over.
There were only two more witnesses. Dr. Henry F. Harris reconfirmed his earlier testimony that the bread and cabbage found in Mary Phagan’s stomach showed she had died no later than 45 minutes after eating it at 11:30am. On Thursday morning C. Brutus Dalton, a 35 year-old carpenter, stated he had procured girls for himself and Mr. Frank and brought them to the factory: he also confirmed that Conley had acted as a lookout. On August 7, after eight days of hearings, the prosecution rested its case.