The White Court (1910–21)

Criminal Justice

In what decision later viewed as a miscarriage of justice did the White Court refuse to overrule a death-penalty conviction in Georgia?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in Frank v. Mangum (1915) that Leo Frank was not entitled to federal habeas corpus relief from his death-penalty conviction in Fulton County, Georgia.

Frank, the Jewish owner of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, had been charged with the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, one of Frank’s employees. Anti-Semitism contributed to a very hostile atmosphere at Frank’s trial. Frank and his lawyer were not even present when the guilty verdict was read before a packed courtroom surrounded by a mob of people.

The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Frank’s conviction, finding that there was no constitutional error in Frank not being present during the rendering of the verdict. Frank and his lawyers then sought relief in the federal courts through a habeas corpus action. The majority of the Court, in an opinion by Justice Mahlon Pitney, rejected Frank’s claims, reasoning that Frank was not denied due process of law because his conviction was reviewed by the Georgia Supreme Court. The state appellate process ensured that Frank’s trial was not dominated by mob rule, Justice Pitney wrote.


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