COBB COUNTY, Ga. (CBS46) -- The tragic case of Leo Frank and Mary Phagan is well known for the inflammatory nature of the trial. Now, the case is being revived as the Fulton County District Attorney’s office begins its new conviction integrity unit.
Frank was accused of killing 13-year-old Little Mary Phagan in 1913. Mary was found raped and strangled in the factory where she worked. Frank, Mary’s superintendent at the factory, was reportedly the last person to see Mary alive.
His trial roiled the nation with hatred stoked by race, gender, and religion. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the governor commuted his death sentence. Enraged, a mob of people kidnapped Frank from prison and lynched him in Mary’s home town of Marietta.
Over the years, many people have doubted whether Frank was guilty of the crime. But there’s one person who believes the right person was convicted, and that’s Mary’s namesake—her grand-niece, Mary Phagan-Kean.
“It won’t go away,” Phagan-Kean told CBS46 Special Assignment reporter Sally Sears. She says she learned of her family’s history when she was 13—the same age Mary Phagan was when she was murdered.
“My teacher Mr. Henry said, are you, by chance, related to that little girl that was murdered in Atlanta?” Phagan-Kean says. She took the question right to her father. “Is it true there’s another Mary Phagan? He stood back, white as he could be. And he said ‘who told you that? You go back to Mr. Henry, say you are related,” she explains.
The infamous trial and later lynching of Leo Frank are captured in the neat files in her bedroom. Yet a century of doubt about Frank's guilt is here, too, and in the Georgia archives where the Leo Frank story lives on. The archives hold photographs the New York Times staged but never published, showing an alternate theory of the murder. The staging shows a model of Mary, pushed down a hole into the basement, knocked unconscious. In this theory, Mary is attacked and strangled by Leo Frank’s accomplice Jim Conley, who was the star witness against Frank.
Mary Phagan-Kean recoils from the photos. Convinced of Leo Frank’s guilt, she wondered if her own research into the case was worth publishing. “I have her DNA in me. When I have questions about it, I'll go to Mary's grave and ask if I should get involved. And I always receive a sign that tells me yes,” she says.
Phagan-Kean’s confidence has led her to protest the District Attorney’s decision to re-examine the case. “It would be very sad if they exonerate Leo Frank without the Phagan family involvement. But then I will push the world to know we were not involved in it,” she explains.