Unhappy Moments in American Justice, Part 1

Alice Crimmins
In this classic murder mystery, Alice Crimmins' two children are murdered. As a very attractive and sexually adventuresome woman in the 1960s, she is railroaded into a conviction not based upon the evidence, but upon the scandal of her sex life. "A tramp like her is capable of anything," the prosecutor sneered.

The twists and turns, surprise witnesses and tabloid events of her two trials almost defy belief. Not surprisingly, this extraordinary case has been the subject of books, movies and plays.

Leo Frank
The crowd on the grounds of the state capital in Atlanta numbered in the thousands. There were gaunt farmers with their wives and children, state employees with stiff celluloid collars and straw hats, shopkeepers with aprons and arm-banded sleeves. They shifted restlessly, milled around in a slow rumbling anger, yet, in a strange way, they were a festive gathering, as if anticipating a parade or a picnic. They were waiting for the Baptist minister to rouse them, to fuel their smoldering anger. When the preacher had finished, proclaiming the man on trial, Leo Frank, to be a despoiler of innocence, the devil who had killed the little girl, Mary Phagan, the crowd cried, "Hang him, hang him!" Over the shouts and the frenzied babbling, fiddling John Carson began to play and sing "The Ballad of Mary Phagan."

A little less than two months later, the crowd got its wish. A number of upstanding citizens hung Leo Frank. They lynched him from a large oak tree, in a quiet grove, outside Marietta, Georgia.

But the story did not end with his death. It is a case of injustice that continues to echo through the twentieth century and beyond. It generated the formation of the modern Ku Klux Klan, and produced the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, two organizations that exist to this day. It is a sad tale of anti-Semitism, the clash of cultures, and an egregious miscarriage of justice.

John Wayne in a Roman Collar
In a strange way, the tragic narrative of Father Leo Heineman's death fit perfectly with the fire-forged faith of coal-country Catholicism. It's an austere faith formed in a poisoned land. Ashland, Tamaqua, Centralia - towns that seem to have been ripped out of the Book of Revelations, all but erased because of an underground mine fire that still burns more than forty years after it first erupted, poisoning the air with the hellish stench of sulphur. This is the cradle of coal-country Catholicism. It's a place where disappointment verging on despair is dogma, and where people have to believe that the good, and perhaps only the good, die young, certain that their reward is awaiting them in heaven.

In a bizarre way, it was perhaps almost a comforting thought that Father Leo died an innocent victim, a man who could never, it was assumed, have taken any steps to provoke his killer, or to have hastened his own demise. In the belief structure of coal-country Catholicism, it is far more soothing to believe that the world is predatory and black, and that people must succumb to its pernicious dangers so that they can ultimately reach salvation.

What eventually became clear was that Father Leo was succumbing to dangers of his own: a chronic struggle with alcohol and his vows of celibacy. And so, while the parish was firmly entrenched in a heroic view of Father Leo, in reality a drunken priest was carrying on a relationship with a married woman. A priest who was killed by the woman's elderly husband. The community was in an upheaval as it sorted through the key cause for the priests death: self-defense? Involuntary manslaughter? Murder?

The Croton Lake Murder
Several Italian immigrants who worked on the building of New York's Croton Lake Dam heard about an inheritance that a local widow had just received and planned to rob her of that money. The clumsy robbery resulted in the unexpected death of a woman.

Twenty-six days later, five defendants had been sentenced to death. To most people, it mattered little that four of the suspects did not even know a murder was committed during the robbery at the Griffin house. They had a trial, were found guilty and now had to suffer the penalty. Case closed. Was this rush to justice legal? Yes, but was it just?

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