by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
May 22, 2007
JAILHOUSE JUSTICE AND THE KKK
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- No one spells it out, but the meaning is clear. Someone who appears guilty of a heinous crime pleads guilty and is jailed for a lesser crime, perhaps after some plea bargaining or for lack of sufficient evidence.
Perhaps the person is appealing his conviction, not because the outcome will be any different, but because he can. His guilt may be very obvious, but our legal system allows for appeal after appeal; his final sentence is often delayed, sometimes for years.
An August 24, 2003, article in the Boston Globe refers to the jailhouse murder of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan, a convicted child molester who was strangled by a white supremacist while in "protective custody." The article mentioned a state lawmaker, serving on a committee charged with overseeing prisons, who questioned whether state legislators should investigate Geoghan's death.
"Not to sound cold here, but growing up, you hear about jailhouse justice and this might be a case of that," said state Representative Demetrius J. Atsalis, a Barnstable, Mass., Democrat on the Joint Committee on Public Safety. "Those who prey on children aren't seen in the same light as other convicts. Is it shocking? I don't think so. His crime was against children, and if convicts know that, they don't like it."
Comments by the killer's father indicated Geoghan was in the same cell with his attacker, a neo-Nazi with a hatred of homosexuals who would be likely to kill a sex offender. Geoghan's murderer had nothing to lose, it was felt, since he was a felon serving a life sentence for murder. Corrections officials said, however, that Geoghan was alone in his cell in a special unit that was only half-full. Inm any case, the victim was a sex offender; jail is a place where no one who commits a crime against a child can walk freely. Both victim and murderer were in the protective custody unit - leaving us to wonder about the protectors. But this phenomenon is not new; it has always been this way, and the results are not always "just."
About a dozen years ago I started watching "Law & Order" on tv, and now, long after it its 10-year run, I watch it in syndication. Originally, I watched because of the city streets of New York. I didn't care about the crimes, per se, but glimpses into dark alleys, crowded subways, chases on foot, rooftop hideouts, and the ancient police stations were like home to me.
The show is probably as close as you'll get to reality fare and with actors that still follow a script. The scenes are not Fifth Avenue, the Upper East Side, or the finer regions of the city where I was born; no, they show where the dregs of humanity hang out and often end up dead by overdose or by a bullet, typically fired by a misfit intent on throwing his life away.
After watching rerun after rerun, I realized that along the way I've gained a surprising knowledge of police procedures. I developed a keener awareness of what to look for at a crime scene, and now I look at news reports with the eyes of an investigator.
This bent of mine sharpened my interest in the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year old girl working at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, Ga., in 1913. Her battered body, the presumed sexual activity (as it was described at the time), and evidence that implicated first one and then five suspects, garnered national interest as every detail, real or embellished, played out in the press.
As often happens, I came across the case when I was looking for something else. I was writing about Memorial Day last week and wanted the date celebrated in the Southern states to honor Confederate soldiers. As it turns out, Mary Phagan was on her way to that very celebration after first stopping at the factory for her paycheck. It was April 26, 1913.
Based on scant evidence, her boss, Leo Frank, who gave her the $1.27 she earned and was the last to see her, was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. Appeal after appeal, even to the Supreme Court, dragged on and in June 1915 the governor heard testimony causing him to commute Frank's sentence to life imprisonment. He would be protected in the state penitentiary in Milledgeville. While there, Frank became the object of viciously anti-Semitic articles in weekly magazines published by a local man, Tom Watson.
Jailhouse justice is not only carried on within the walls of the prison; in this case an armed but misguided mob, largely the result of Watson's attacks, stormed into the barracks where Leo Frank was held and took him from Milledgeville to Marietta, northwest of Atlanta, where they hanged the innocent man from a tree.
Although I was merely looking for a date honoring the Confederate dead, I found a significant fact: Those same men who did the hanging were called to a meeting in November 1915 by William Joseph Simmons. He thought they would be just the ones he needed for his causes. They solemnly joined together, burned a cross atop nearby Stone Mountain, read from the bible and announced the founding of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It was hardly a legacy for Mary Phagan but it all came about over her young dead body.
My knowledge of today's forensics made reading of this case troublesome. There was no protocol or technology to check time of death, dust for fingerprints, get rape kit for semen sample, swab cheeks of all the employees for DNA comparison, check handwriting on the notes, find her paycheck, or search for the murder weapon (also a strangulation, it appears now.)
It would have been solved within days if investigators back then had modern tools, or if instead of waiting until 1982, when a dying man wanted to clear his conscience, Alex Mann had come forward to admit that as a young boy working at the pencil factory he had seen a man Named Jim Conley carrying the body and was threatened with murder himself if he told the story. That information totally absolved Leo Frank, as most historical investigators of the crime had already done.
Jailhouse justice is usually meted out by someone who has nothing to lose. In the case of the misguided mob anxious to hang Leo Frank, they had only one thing to lose: their immortal souls.