Longtime readers know that I’m a crime buff. I’ve been fascinated with human behavior and how it is displayed through both crime and reaction to crime.
The Troy Davis case sits heavy on my heart…and it reminds me of another Georgia murder case from way back that ended in death even as it failed to distribute justice.
When I was a wee one I watched a television movie about the murder of Mary Phagan. Phagan was a 14 year-old girl who was murdered in 1913…she had gone to her place of employment…a factory…to claim her pay and disappeared. Her body was later found at the factory.
Evidence found at the scene pointed toward a black man who worked at the factory…
…but suspicion turned on the factory owner, Leo Frank.
Anti-Semitism factored into the police investigation…Frank was Jewish.
Anger at industrialists also played a role...Frank was wealthy.
Leo Frank was arrested, tried, and found guilty…
…he appealed and was eventually granted clemency because the trial was a controversial mess showcasing racism, anti-Semitism, and questionable eyewitness testimony.
Shortly after gaining clemency Leo Frank was kidnapped from prison by a mob and lynched.
A mob that had decided Frank’s guilt…a mob that dismissed the evidence cited in the statement of clemency…a mob that was so secure in their certainty and the support of the masses that they didn’t even bother to hide their faces as they stood for a picture with Frank's hanging body.
70 years later a man who had been a child working at the factory came forward…he explained that he had seen a black man carrying Mary Phagan’s body in the factory but his family made him promise not to tell for fear of reprisals from the same people who were set on punishing Frank.
This new witness said he wanted to die in peace.
He passed a lie detector test and, after re-examining the evidence, historians have determined that a black man who worked at the factory was likely the man who murdered Mary Phagan.
Death as a punishment for murder requires certainty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Certainty can be a very dangerous thing.
The mob wasn’t focused on finding the murderer of a young girl.
The mob was out for vengeance and fueled by rage.
It has been nearly 100 years since the murder of Mary Phagan…100 years of death as a punishment for murder, be it by lynching or vigilante or the justice system.
100 years of the mob.
Applauding Governors for high incarceration and execution rates.
Dismissing the recanting of faulty eyewitness testimony.
Ignoring a lack of physical evidence.
The mob is still out for vengeance and fueled by rage.
And today, as it was then, murderers walk among us while the mob sits back satisfied.