Appeals and Commutation

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Pages from Watson's Magazine, accusing Leo Frank of being a pervert. Courtesy of the University of California via HathiTrust. 

Over the lengthy appeals process, the Leo Frank case became a national cause. Northern newspapers, primarily The New York Times and Collier’s Weekly, argued Frank’s innocence amid nationwide expressions of anti-Semitism.

This angered many Georgians, particularly Tom Watson, populist politician and publisher of Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine. When national publications attacked Georgia, Watson retaliated by disseminating sensational, anti-Semitic editorials that turned public opinion against Frank, and depicted the support of Frank’s appeals process as meddling from Northern and Jewish interests.

Ultimately, Georgia governor John Slaton bore the responsibility for deciding whether Frank would hang or if his sentence would be commuted to life imprisonment. Slaton received letters urging commutation from Jim Conley’s attorney (who was convinced of his client’s guilt) and Judge Roan, who had presided over the Frank case. He also received letters against commutation, including one from a group of city leaders from Mary Phagan’s hometown of Marietta. Slaton agonized over the decision: he read trial documents, visited the crime scene, and ultimately commuted Frank’s sentence on his last day in office. Knowing the decision would be unpopular, Slaton left Georgia, and did not return for ten years.

After the commutation, Frank was moved to the state prison farm near Milledgeville, Georgia.