In the pre-dawn hours of April 27, 1913, the night watchman at an Atlanta pencil factory made a grisly discovery: the body of a young girl. She had been beaten, strangled, and possibly raped. The death of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a white worker at the factory, quickly became front-page news. Several arrests were made, including Jim Conley, a black janitor at the factory. Also arrested was Leo Frank, the factory's superintendent and the last person to admit seeing Mary alive.
Suspicion of Frank soon mounted, based largely on his nervous behavior. A Jew who was raised in Brooklyn, Frank quickly became prosecutor Hugh Dorsey's prime suspect. In the last of four statements the police 'sweated' out of Jim Conley, he confessed to having helped Leo Frank hide Mary's body but, the janitor insisted, Frank alone was the killer. 'POLICE HAVE THE STRANGLER,' blared one headline, effectively convicting Leo before he ever faced a jury.Frank's trial lasted a month. Each day spectators packed the sweltering courtroom, with hundreds more waiting outside to catch the latest news. The proceedings descended into a free-for-all of racial stereotypes, hearsay testimony and contradictions on the witness stand. Despite Conley's conflicting statements, the all-white jury accepted the word of the Southern black janitor over that of the Northern Jewish factory superintendent. Leo Frank was pronounced guilty and sentenced to death.
Most Atlantans celebrated the verdict, but observers around the country considered it a mockery of justice. Editorials from New York to San Francisco called for a new trial. Frank's lawyers appealed the conviction, but were rebuffed at every step. In their last hope, they petitioned Georgia's outgoing governor, John Slaton to review the evidence. In an astounding turn of events, Slaton concluded that Frank had not received a fair trial. He commuted Frank's sentence from death to life in prison.
Meanwhile, an elite group of influential Georgians, including a sitting judge and former governor, made plans to quietly carry out their own sentence on Frank. On a hot August afternoon, 25 men loaded up seven cars and drove from Marietta to the state penitentiary in Milledgeville where Frank was being held. They walked into the prison and, without breaking a lock or firing a shot, abducted the prisoner from his cell. They drove Frank to an oak grove near Mary Phagan's childhood home. A noose was placed around Frank's neck. A judge read the charges and proclaimed the sentence. Then the small table on which Leo Frank stood was kicked out from under him.The most famous lynching of a white man in America inspired two conflicting legacies. Some of Frank's lynchers joined with members of the original Ku Klux Klan, which had all but faded out after Reconstruction. The modern Klan they constituted just outside Atlanta would expand its mission from merely intimidating Southern blacks to spreading hate against Jews, Catholics and others across the country. Meanwhile, a fledgling organization found its mission in the Frank case. The Anti-Defamation League would become a powerful defender of civil rights and social justice for all in America and continues to this day.
Shot on location in Atlanta, the film illuminates the scandalous trial and its shocking aftermath with dramatic sequences created verbatim from transcripts, documents and letters. A strong cast is led by Will Janowitz (Leo Frank) and Seth Gilliam (Jim Conley). A remarkable trove of rare historic images and new interviews with authors, historians, politicians and descendents of the participants infuse these nearly century-old events with a special resonance for today. Set against the backdrop of an American South struggling to shed its legacy of bigotry and xenophobia, the story is both a first-rate murder mystery and a thought provoking look at racial, religious, regional and class prejudices in the early years of the 20th Century.