237 U.S. 309 (1915), argued 25–26 Feb. 1915, decided 19 Apr. 1915 by vote of 7 to 2; Pitney for the Court, Holmes in dissent. In one of the most sensational murder cases of the era, Leo Frank, one of the owners of the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, was accused of killing a thirteen-year-old female employee. In a clear miscarriage of justice, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. An atmosphere of violence surrounding the courtroom had led the trial judge to ask that the defendant and his counsel not be present when the verdict was returned. As the jurors were being polled, their voices were drowned out by the cheers of the crowd outside.
After the failure of numerous motions and state appeals, Frank's lawyers sought a writ of habeas corpus in the federal district court; its denial brought the case to the Supreme Court. Counsel argued that mob intimidation had deprived Frank of due process of law. Justice Mahlon Pitney, for the majority, saw any trial impropriety cleansed by the Georgia appellate process, but Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in dissent, condemned the trial and the intimidation of the jury.
Although the Court during this time period liberally used the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to supervise state action concerning property, it hesitated in finding a similar federal supervisory power over state criminal proceedings. Such reluctance would dissipate as early as Moore v. Dempsey (1923), but this was much too late to save Leo Frank, who was lynched after Georgia's courageous governor had commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.
John E. Semonche