Bill Kirby began his career with The Augusta Chronicle 40 years ago and has held just about every job in the newsroom. He and his wife Carla spend their spare time doting on their West Highland terriers, Lil' Bow Wow ("Buddy") and Snoop Dog. He writes several local columns each week, as well as YouTube videos on local history called "Kirby's Augusta." From 1998 until 2001 he was editor and publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Over a 40-year newspaper career he has won more than 100 state, regional and national awards for reporting, editing, column writing, editorial writing, sports writing, business writing, investigative reporting, layout and design.
Posted May 15, 2010 09:40 am - Updated May 15, 2010 10:32 am

A lawyer you want on your side

Leo Frank
Leo Frank
Leo Frank sits in the courtroom during his trial in the death of Mary Phagan.

Things looked bad for Leo Frank.

He had been convicted of the 1913 sexual assault and vicious murder of a 13-year-old girl in the Atlanta factory he managed.

The mobs wanted blood and several of the state's uglier elements encouraged them to get it.

But he did have one thing going for him. His Augusta lawyer William Marcellus Howard.

Howard was a remarkable ally.

A University Georgia graduate and former state solicitor for north Georgia, Howard ran for Congress and won re-election six times. He finally lost in 1910, but apparently had friends in Washington. President Taft, a frequent visitor to our town, named him to the United States Tariff Board in 1911. He served two years, before moving to Augusta to practice law.

And in 1915 in Atlanta he was the next to last man between Leo Frank and oblivion.

The consensus of history is that Frank -- a Jew from New York -- was the victim of a wave of anti-Semitism so strong it made a Deep South jury of white men do the unbelievable -- accept the word of a black man, a janitor named Jim Conley -- that Frank was guilty of the death of little Mary Phagan.

Frank was convicted quickly. The only question seemed to be who would get him first -- the state executioner or a lynch mob.

Enter W.M. Howard.

He was the legal counsel brought in to convince Gov. John M. Slaton to commute Frank's death sentence.

According to the June 13, 1915 account in The Augusta Chronicle, Howard took the prosecution's case and conviction and revealed its many flaws.

Reviewing the newspaper account almost a century later, it reads like a modern TV crime scene drama.

Howard -- the old state prosecutor -- hammered the discrepancies in testimony. He also cited evidence found on the victim's body and showed how the Atlanta police detectives had bungled the case.


Here is a portion of what The Chronicle reported:

"Mr. Howard takes the powerfully important position that the physical evidence as read into the record by condition of Mary Phagan's body, on examination, proves conclusively that the little girl was not killed on the second floor of the pencil factory; that she was not killed in the way Conley says she was; that she was not conveyed after death to the basement, as Conley says she was, that it's shown by the physical evidence that she was killed in the basement of the building. The presence of particles of cinders ground into her face, on her arms, up into the cavity of her nostrils, in the deep cavity of her mouth, are essential facts, which fasten the crime not on Frank, but conclusively on Jim Conley."

Howard pointed out 19 points in the record of the state's testimony, which would incriminate Frank, all provided by Conley, who was the more likely murderer.

If you take away Conley's testimony, Howard pointed out, you have no evidence against Leo Frank.

His presentation made its impact on those present. The Chronicle's Atlanta correspondent praised his case.

And it impressed the one man who could do something about it -- Gov. Slaton.

In one of the more principled and politically courageous decisions in Georgia history, Slaton considered the evidence and Howard's argument. He visited the murder scene.

And then he commuted Frank's death sentence to life in prison, where a future appeal might free him.

It was not a publicly popular position. The governor told his wife that he thought he himself might be killed.

"I would rather be the widow of a brave and honorable man than a live coward," she told him.

It didn't come to that, although mobs did converge on the Governor's Mansion.

The governor left office soon after his decision, and he and his wife moved out of Georgia, not to return for a decade.

Frank was spirited out of the Atlanta prison tower and taken to the state prison farm in Milledgeville.

Hatred followed him there.

A caravan of cars from Phagan's Marietta hometown drove to middle Georgia, overpowered the guards of the minimum security facility, brought Frank back to Cobb County and hung him from a small oak tree on the property of a former sheriff.

They were never caught nor punished, but posterity has damned them as cowardly murderers.

Not so, Slaton. Posterity has given him the praise his principled decision deserved.

That same posterity, however, seems to have forgotten the Augusta lawyer who gave Slaton the facts to make that call.