Leo Frank, Roscoe Arbuckle, and the dangers of a rush to judgment
by, 12th-August-2008 at 02:01 AM (2124 Views)
On June 21, 1915, then Governor of Georgia John Slaton commuted the death sentence of one Leo Frank to life imprisonment. The Governor had been convinced by recently available evidence that there was a good chance Frank, a factory supervisor, was innocent of the crime for which he had been condemned, the murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan. A painstaking examination of the evidence led Slaton to conclude that Frank had been the victim of an over-zealous prosecution coupled with a public hysteria that had a strong and odious undercurrent of anti-Semitism.
Two weeks after Slaton’s commutation, a lynch mob stormed the prison where Frank was kept, pulled him out, and hanged him.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a gifted comedian of the silent film era, hosted a party on September 5, 1921. A young actress who attended that event, Virginia Rappe, died soon afterward of a ruptured bladder. Another attendee, Bambina Maude Delmont, a woman with an extensive criminal record that included extortion, bigamy, and fraud, accused Arbuckle of raping Virginia and so causing her death. The comedian was arrested and endured three trials. Newspapers played up the sensational story, blasting Arbuckle as a brutal sex fiend. His weight worked against him as he went in the public eye from a lovable fat man character to a kind of obese ogre.
The third jury to try him returned an acquittal. At its own initiative, the jury that found him not guilty also issued an apology in which it declared Arbuckle the victim of a great wrong.
These cases bear some striking parallels. The first is that men were publicly demonized for crimes of which they were innocent. A second is that personal characteristics of the men -- Frank’s ethnicity and religion, Arbuckle’s weight – fueled prejudice against them.
A third parallel is that these men became scapegoats for wrongs about which society as a whole was validly concerned. Those concerns were about the possible sexual exploitation of women in factories and in Hollywood. They were also about the children who might be born of such exploitation and were likely to be ill cared for or neglected.
That society as a whole urgently wanted to protect women and girls is a point to give one pause. Some people seem to see our social system as created by “beastly” men out to “use” women. The truth is that that vast majority of men have traditionally been sensitive to the special problems women experience because of pregnancy along with the female vulnerability to sexual violence that is embedded in the biological construction of men’s and women’s sexual organs. The desire of men as a group to protect women from the minority of vicious men can be seen in the harsh penalties for forcible rape and in the very existence of the statutory rape laws.
The Leo Frank and Roscoe Arbuckle cases were tragedies in which individual innocent men were caught up in a maelstrom of societal outrage and made scapegoats.
At this point the reader probably expects me to make a point about the alleged rape of a stripper by Duke University lacrosse players. But the point of the Frank and Arbuckle cases goes well beyond any current case and applies to all criminal cases. It is that we must never allow general societal concerns, no matter how well taken, to warp the course of justice for individuals.