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In cold blood
The untold story of how Dane County brought a killer racist to justice
Madison police detectives obtained a tape-recorded confession from Franklin about the Aug. 7, 1977 shooting at East Towne Mall.

Serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin is scheduled to be executed by the state of Missouri on Wednesday, Nov. 20 for the Oct. 8, 1977 murder of Gerald Gordon. Franklin gunned Gordon down in the parking lot of a St. Louis synagogue as he was leaving a bar mitzvah. A month earlier, on Aug. 7, Franklin shot and killed Alphonce Manning and Toni Schwenn in the parking lot of East Towne Mall in Madison in a racially motivated act. Franklin was tried and convicted in Dane County of that crime in 1986. More than two decades later, former District Attorney Hal Harlowe, who prosecuted Franklin, explains why he is opposed to his execution. In this January 12, 1990 Isthmus cover story, David M. Freedman reports on how Harlowe brought Franklin to justice for his Madison murders.

At the time it happened -- Aug. 7, 1977 -- few people suspected how senseless it was. Alphonce Manning Jr. and Toni Schwenn were shot to death in the parking lot of Madison's East Towne Mall. No one knew who did it or why. After several years, the investigation was closed.

Then in 1984, out of the blue, the killer confessed. His name was Joseph Paul Franklin, and he was no ordinary killer. Until his capture in 1980, Franklin roamed the country, unleashing a torrent of crime stirred by his insane hatred of blacks and Jews. He felt especially religious about blowing away black men who appeared friendly toward white women. Manning was black; Schwenn was white. Both were 23 years old.

Hal Harlowe, then Dane County district attorney, was naturally excited to hear about a break in the case. But listening to Franklin's taped confession, what he felt mostly was shock and revulsion:

"I've been practicing law for 18 years, and I've prosecuted and defended my share of violent crimes. But I've never heard anything close to that level of cold-bloodedness in describing a homicide. There was not a flicker of remorse."

Devil incarnate

Franklin made his confession at the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., to which he was sentenced for murdering two black men in Salt Lake City in 1980. The victims had offended him by jogging with two white women.

After a nationwide manhunt, Franklin had been arrested in Florida in October 1980. He was tried for the murders in both Utah state court and federal court in a civil rights action, and sentenced to a total of four life terms.

The U.S. Justice Department then prosecuted him for the May 1980 shooting of National Urban League president Vernon Jordan in Fort Wayne, Ind. Jordan, a black man, was with a white woman when he was shot. Franklin was acquitted.

Franklin was also suspected of bombing an Israeli diplomat's house near Washington, D.C., in 1977; of bombing a Jewish synagogue in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1977 (for which he was later convicted); and of shooting Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt in Georgia in 1978 (after Hustler printed sexually explicit photos of an interracial couple).

Because of his reputation as a white supremacist, Franklin was treated punitively by black inmates at Marion, and in 1984 he was desperate to get out. He calculated that if he confessed to two murders committed in Madison in 1977, he would be transferred to Dane County for prosecution. So he got word to the Madison Police Department that he wanted to give a statement. In February 1984, two Madison detectives went to Marion and obtained the tape-recorded confession.

Before listening to the tape, Harlowe and his staff researched Franklin's background. One attorney involved in an earlier case characterized Franklin as "the devil incarnate," warning that he was extremely intelligent and manipulative. Others mentioned his "wiliness and craftiness." Franklin had an uncanny ability to escape from police custody, which he had done three times.

Thus informed, Harlowe turned on the tape recorder.

Servant of God

Franklin stated that he had driven to Madison in August 1977 to assassinate Judge Archie Simonson. The judge -- whom Franklin mistakenly believed was Jewish -- had just presided over a controversial rape case involving three black male defendants and a white female high school student.

"The Jew released them on the grounds saying that they had a right to rape the white girl because white girls wore too much provocative clothing and crap like that.... So when I heard about that, I just decided to go up there and kill the bastard... because I feel it's my duty as a servant of God to protect white womanhood from any injuries or degradation by the niggers and the Jews."

As he arrived in Madison, Franklin stopped at East Towne Mall. He noticed a police car nearby, the officer inside. As he was leaving the lot, a white Toronado backed out of a parking space into his path. The driver was a black man, and next to him was a white woman.

"He backed up real slow, and he was deliberately trying to sit in my way. He pulled right in the middle of the lane where I couldn't pass him either. So I sat on the horn, you know. So the nigger...stops and gets out of the car and starts walking in my direction."

Franklin had two stolen handguns in his car -- one on the seat beside him -- and a box of dynamite and blasting caps in the trunk. Those items would connect him with bank robberies, bombings and other crimes he had recently committed.

"So anyway, having all this stuff, hot guns and explosives, I saw the nigger... walking toward me, and I realized the cop was sitting there not too far away from me. And you know if I got in a fight with the nigger I'd get busted for all this stuff, the bank robberies, the bombings....So I figured right at the last minute. I says, man, if I'm gonna go to prison, I'm gonna send this nigger and white bitch to hell too before I go."

Franklin grabbed his pistol, a .357 magnum, aimed it out the open car window and shot Alphonce Manning in the midsection. When Manning didn't fall, Franklin opened his car door, got out, and shot him again in roughly the same place. Manning went down.

"So I ran over to the driver's side of the Toronado, and I just pointed the gun [through the closed window] and fired, at which time the whole glass just blew out, exploded. Aimed at her. Evidently I [hit her in the leg], because she went out the side, opened the door and dropped down on the ground next to the car." (Chuckles.)

He ran back to his car, pulled up alongside the Toronado, and got out again. He was standing over Toni Schwenn.

"She was staring right at me in the face, looking like she was trying to recognize me. So I just put the big barrel up there again, and with one hand I just went POW! Shot her right in the back."

Witnesses scattered and hid behind cars. Franklin drove away.

Haunting memory

Hearing the confession, Harlowe's immediate reaction was that Franklin represented pure evil.

"There's a difference between someone who is by nature negative and unenlightened and mean-spirited, who yields to the passions and compulsions of the moment; and someone who is evil," Harlowe says. "The difference is, in the ugliest of ways, integrity. This guy killed out of conviction. What he did was consistent with his warped beliefs."

Harlowe, then in his first term as Dane County district attorney, had encountered such a personification of evil once before -- as a young prosecutor in the Wisconsin attorney general's office. Franklin's confession evoked the haunting memory of another double murder -- and the "repellingly unique" man he prosecuted for it in 1973.

The man was a Chippewa in his 20s charged with breaking into the house of two elderly women on a northern Wisconsin Indian reservation, robbing and savagely beating them to death. He was, as Harlowe recalls, "big and strong and scary, and he had a long criminal record. Almost everybody on the reservation was terrified of him, and they all believed he had committed the crime."

But the evidence was slim. The case rested primarily on a confession allegedly made by the defendant to his former girlfriend. "Unfortunately, the girlfriend had been serially interviewed and reinterviewed so many times that we had a wealth of inconsistent statements to deal with," Harlowe says.

The prosecution was also hampered by sloppy police work. Harlowe himself discovered the murder weapon -- a tire iron tossed into a clothes hamper -- during a visit to the murder scene. Local investigators, evincing a lack of concern toward murders on the reservation, had somehow managed to overlook it. Unfortunately, no fingerprints were found on the weapon.

Harlowe, undefeated in an earlier stint as assistant district attorney in Rock County, nonetheless thought he could win a first-degree murder conviction. "I was a hotshot," he admits.

If Harlowe didn't expect an acquittal, he was even less prepared for the reaction that followed it. Although it was after midnight when the jury returned with its verdict, around 90 Chippewa from the reservation still filled the courtroom.

"As the clerk finished saying 'not guilty,' the Native Americans in the back of the room started wailing. It was like the unrestrained moaning you hear at a funeral, from someone who's unable to contain their pain and grief. But this was a whole mass of people doing it at once.

"The sound is etched in my mind and forever will be," says Harlowe. "It came straight from their souls. It went back in time and bespoke ages of suffering."

As Harlowe interpreted it, the wail of the spectators was the sound of justice denied -- again. "Looking at the lily-white jury as they filed out, my feeling was they didn't give a damn. It was just another killing on the reservation.

Do the right thing

Listening to Franklin's confession, Harlowe immediately grasped the similarities between the two cases -- a horrendous crime committed against people for whom justice is often denied; a defendant without a shred of remorse. A month later, he charged Franklin with two counts of first-degree murder.

Thus began one of the most intriguing aspects of the case: the controversy surrounding Harlowe's decision to bring Franklin back to Madison for trial. Jonathan Barry, then the Dane County executive, publicly suggested that the costs of the prosecution (which he estimated at $200,000 to $300,000) would outweigh the benefits.

There were concerns about security. Franklin might escape, as he had done before. Or he could be the target of someone seeking revenge.

Some argued that since Franklin had already been sentenced to four consecutive life terms, he would never be released. They felt the county should simply close the books on the murder, and not risk the chance that Franklin might recant his confession (which he did) and be acquitted.

Others feared that the trial would turn into a media circus, denigrating the memory of the people Franklin killed while giving him a forum from which to expound his twisted philosophy of hate.

"The only strong, visible support for bringing Franklin back," recalls Harlowe, "came from the black community, especially the victim's family, and one other attorney, who happened to be a Native American."

As Harlowe saw it, justice in this case required "a public and formal condemnation" of Franklin's behavior. "We don't grant a racist murderer immunity and impunity just because he's killed so many other people and he's serving a lot of time," he says.

"And we don't begin saying our justice system can't handle a case that's costly and risky. Because if you do, then you've conveyed the message that the system doesn't work, and you invite cynicism."

If Harlowe needed further justification for bringing Franklin back for prosecution, he found it. The U.S. Parole Commission, responding to his query, noted that Franklin would be eligible for parole as early as 1990.

In a statement to the press in May 1984, Harlowe said, "There's no assurance that he's going to remain in prison for the rest of his life. I think we need to do our part to assure that a very dangerous person isn't released from custody -- ever."

Prepare to try

Even before persuading a reluctant federal Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshal's Service to transfer Franklin to Dane County, Harlowe's staff began preparing the case for trial, valuably assisted by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

For example, the BATF helped Madison police investigator Ted Mell locate the sporting goods store in Alabama from which Franklin professedly stole the murder weapon; he verified that such a gun had been missing from the store's inventory in 1977. Ballistics experts confirmed that the gun could have produced the groove marks on the 38-caliber slugs recovered from the victims' bodies.

With no assurance that the taped confession would be admitted at trial, more evidence was needed. Mell located a witness who was 15 years old at the time of the murders and had heard the shots fired in the mall parking lot, thinking they were firecrackers.

Vicky Johnson ran to the crime scene, stopping about 30 feet from Franklin. Their eyes met; she saw the gun in his hand. Johnson looked down and realized she was standing in Alphonce Manning's blood. Manning called to her for help as he died.

Johnson gave her name and address to a policeman at the scene and quickly went home, traumatized by the event. Incredibly, during the original investigation, no one interviewed her. Seven years later, when she was located by Mell, Johnson was able to identify Franklin as the killer.

One of the most time-consuming aspects of the probe was making sure the earlier suspects' alibis were solid. (Here, too, the original investigators failed to follow through.) Explains Harlowe, "We were concerned that the defense might consist simply of offering these various other suspects, and all it had to do was show that one of them could possibly have done it."

A prime suspect in 1977 was victim Schwenn's former boyfriend, who had been found hours after the murder lying in his bed turning the cylinder of a revolver. He said he was on an airplane at the time of the shooting. Mell corroborated the alibi by tracking down others who'd been on the plane; again, this was not done until seven years after the crime.

On Nov. 6, 1985, Franklin was transferred from Marion and booked into the Dane County Jail. At the initial appearance in court a week later, the prosecutor met the infamous defendant for the first time. His expectations, based on what others had said, were inflated.

"He was described to me by toughened veterans as having an aura around him, as being physically built up and very powerful," Harlowe says. "Some law officers were afraid to be in a room alone with him. So when he came into the courtroom, I sort of half expected the door to go flying open and see red light emitting from the room.

"He walked into the courtroom and he was just another human being. He had been on a diet and lost a great deal of weight, so he wasn't physically imposing. I had expected so much. I had steeled myself for this confrontation."

Harlowe pauses, smiles, and shakes hishead. "Just another guy."

Overwhelming case

Judge William Byrne determined that the county had sufficient evidence to try the defendant. Franklin pleaded not guilty. The judge granted Franklin's request to represent himself at trial, and appointed attorney William Olson as standby defense counsel.

The trial began on Feb. 10, 1986, and lasted five days. In his opening, Franklin told the jury that "the whole confession I gave is totally false, totally concocted and fabricated," and its purpose was to gain a transfer from the Marion prison. He said he had learned about the crime from newspaper accounts.

Vicky Johnson was the prosecution's prime eyewitness. A bank teller from Columbus, Ohio, identified Franklin as the man who had robbed her bank on his way to Madison (introduced as evidence corroborating his confession). A handwriting expert placed Franklin at a Madison motel on the night of the murders (he had signed in as John Wesley Harding, also a racist murderer).

The jury heard an edited version of the taped confession, which Harlowe noted contained details Franklin couldn't have gleaned from news accounts -- such as the position of the victims' wounds. Other witnesses testified as to the confession's accuracy; forensic evidence was introduced.

Franklin -- the defense -- called no witnesses.

"The trial itself wasn't particularly dramatic," says Harlowe. "It was an overwhelming case, and it went very smoothly."

The only drama, of which the public was unaware, involved fears of an escape plot. Recalls Assistant District Attorney Mike Walsh, who second-chaired Harlowe during the trial: "Someone at the federal level provided intelligence that there may be an attempt by people connected with a white supremacy group to liberate Franklin and maybe take hostages."

In court, shackles on Franklin's legs were hidden from the jury by an apron in front of the defense table. The U.S. Marshal's Service provided extra security personnel in the courtroom. Harlowe's wife and children left town for the duration of the trial.

But in the end, the fears of those who criticized the decision to bring Franklin to Madison were proved unfounded. There was no escape attempt, no media circus, no espousal of racist or anti-Semitic beliefs. The total cost of the prosecution, including extra security and prison costs, came to $24,700.

And there was no embarrassing acquittal. The jurors deliberated just over an hour before they delivered their guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Franklin to two more consecutive life terms, and ordered him returned to Marion.

Redemptive victory

For Harlowe, the trial's climax was not the reading of the verdict, but an event that took place just beforehand. He, Walsh and about a dozen relatives of Alphonce Manning were gathered in the library of the district attorney's office when they were informed that the jury had reached a verdict. One of Manning's sisters suggested they join hands and pray.

"We all clasped hands," Harlowe recalls. "The prayer was something like, 'Thank God for giving us this chance, for giving us justice. And we hope that the verdict is just.' It was very moving for us. These people had lived with this unresolved horror for nine years, and now it was coming to an end."

The prayer invoked memories of the Chippewas' wail. For Harlowe, the Franklin trial was, on a personal level, a redemptive victory over evil. But in a larger sense, he felt the victory belonged to the dozen people gathered in that room, and to the community of blacks, Jews and others terrified by the proposition that a person like Franklin could commit such a shocking crime and not be held publicly accountable.Some of Manning's relatives cried when the judge read the jury's verdict. Tina Jenkins, Manning's cousin and a Madison schoolteacher, says the trial restored at least some of her faith in the system.

"For years after the murder, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that the killer would not be found," says Jenkins. "We were very bitter about it, because we felt that the investigation was halfhearted, and we sensed that if Alphonce had been someone 'important,' the killer would have been pursued to the ends of the earth."

Even when it was clear that Franklin would be returned to Madison for trial, Jenkins was prepared for disappointment. "I've been the victim of racism so much that I've learned not to expect the best," she says. "And so we just weren't willing to believe that we'd see justice fulfilled until it actually happened."

Sympathy for the devil

Harlowe did not run for reelection in 1988, instead returning to private practice after three terms in office. Ruminating on his two double-murder cases, he retreats a bit from his earlier characterization of the defendants as "evil" men.

"I don't see myself as the final judge of anybody," he says. "People like Franklin are convenient to use as foils in the struggle against evil in the world and against the evil that may lurk inside each of us. And you can pretty comfortably align yourself against a man like that in an effort to place yourself on the side of good. But I think once you go beyond that and try to judge an individual, you should do it with humility and compassion."

After all, as Mike Walsh points out, "Franklin had been warped by experience. His family was poor; it seemed that he was regularly beaten by his mother; his father was probably an alcoholic. The kid grew up with a lot of hate. The thought crossed my mind, the sobering and sad thought, that at one point this was somebody's little boy." Walsh is now assistant district attorney in the county's juvenile division.

In Harlowe's closing argument, he told the jury that when the case began he loathed Franklin for committing such a crime; now all he felt was pity. "Maybe that's the way to kill the devil," he says today. "Pity him."

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