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It’s been more than 85 years since little Mary Phagan was found mutilated in the basement of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta. But Tom Watson Brown has not forgotten. A Harvard-educated lawyer with a solo practice in Atlanta, Brown is descended from Tom Watson, a newspaper publisher who capitalized on the murder. Brown contends that Leo Frank, the Brooklyn-bred Jewish factory superintendent who was convicted and ultimately lynched for the murder, was guilty as charged. To this day, Brown maintains box upon box of documents about the case. Miles Alexander, a partner at Atlanta’s Kilpatrick Stockton, keeps his own extensive records on the case. But Alexander has reached a starkly different conclusion. Insisting that much of the testimony against Frank was later recanted, Alexander, like many other Atlanta lawyers and historians, contends that Frank was wrongly convicted. The jury, he says, was swayed by anti-Semitic, anti-Northern, and anti-industrialist sentiments whipped up by yellow journalists and political opportunists. (In 1986 Alexander helped win a posthumous apology for the lynching from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, though no official exoneration was forthcoming.) One person who might have solved the mystery of the Phagan murder died half a century ago: Arthur Powell, a Georgia court of appeals judge and an early partner in one of modern-day Atlanta’s most distinguished law firms — Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy. Powell wrote in his 1943 memoir that he knew who killed Phagan, and it wasn’t Frank. Citing attorney-client privilege, Powell refused to reveal his secret while alive, but pledged to leave a letter solving the mystery in a safe-deposit box when he died. Firm legend has it that upon Powell’s death in 1951, his law partners rushed to the box, only to find that the letter had been destroyed. “Apparently he decided that it was a breach of his professional duty either way,” says Elliot Goldstein, a retired senior partner at Powell, Goldstein, and son of name partner Max Goldstein, who told him the Powell story. Although that mystery might never be solved, this summer an Atlanta reference librarian sought to illuminate the other ongoing enigma in the saga by posting a partial list of Frank’s supposed lynchers on the Web, at leofranklynchers.com. The list — which includes many of the most prominent lawyers in Cobb County, Georgia, at the time — was originally created by the grandniece of Mary Phagan. Coincidentally, the Tony award-winning musical “Parade,” based on Frank’s life, opened in Atlanta in June. All this renewed attention has reopened a wound that once deeply scarred Atlanta’s legal community. “This is an issue that’s very sensitive with a lot of people,” admits Alexander. Back in 1915, the Frank case — which spawned both the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan — traumatized Atlanta lawyers, who were divided between staunch Frank supporters and those who wanted to see a Northern Jewish factory manager hang for a gruesome crime committed against one of their own. Frank was convicted after a raucous four-week trial, and the verdict withstood review by the U.S. Supreme Court (though Oliver Wendell Holmes dissented vehemently). Frank’s lawyers petitioned for clemency, and after an exhaustive review of the evidence, Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison. Mobs throughout the state burned the governor in effigy. On August 16, 1915, a group of men seized Frank from a rural prison farm and hung him from an oak tree. Crowds gathered to stare, take snapshots, and snip pieces of Frank’s clothing as souvenirs. Chances are, the posse had the cooperation of the state’s highest authorities, says Steve Oney, an Atlanta-born writer now based in Los Angeles who has spent the past decade researching the Frank case for a book forthcoming from Pantheon. Oney claims that he’ll reveal a conspiracy that reached well beyond Cobb County. “Somehow,” he says, “these guys managed to get into the state prison without firing a shot.” Not only were the lynchers never prosecuted, says Oney, “they weren’t even inconvenienced.” In an age when lynching was not uncommon, what makes the Frank case unusual was the apparent participation of prominent lawyers, judges, and a former Georgia House speaker. Although the list’s accuracy cannot be verified, historians who have studied the case agree that the lynching was spearheaded by the upper echelons of Cobb County’s power structure. Indeed, Tom Watson Brown cites the stature of the participants in his rationalization of the lynching: “It was not a mob that lynched Frank. It was a well-organized, disciplined group of people.” The incident caused many Jewish lawyers to flee Georgia. Those who remained were stunned into silence. “It was so shocking that people really didn’t talk about it,” says Goldstein, who recalls his own father speaking of the lynching only once. The Frank case made or destroyed countless careers. Governor Slaton was forced to withdraw from politics. But Tom Watson, whose weekly newspaper fomented bigotry, fear, and anger about the Frank case, wound up representing Georgia in the U.S. Senate. A statue still memorializes him on the statehouse lawn. Many Atlanta lawyers still cringe at the history, but that didn’t keep them from crowding into Fox Theater to see “Parade” in June. Although some, like Emmet Bondurant of Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, were offended by a musical rendition of a lynching — however seriously dramatic its tone — many say that periodic reexamination of an old wound has a salutary effect. Says Alexander, “The more that comes out, the clearer the miscarriage of justice will be.”

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