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 Alphonse 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 explains why he is opposed to his execution. In this January 17, 1997 article, Bill Lueders reports on how Franklin also confessed to the March 6, 1978 shooting of Hustler published Larry Flynt.
A tag line at the end of the film The People vs. Larry Flynt states that whoever gunned down the porn publisher in 1978, paralyzing him from the waist down, was never brought to justice. In fact, the probable shooter was prosecuted for a double murder in Madison and is serving multiple life sentences.
Joseph Paul Franklin, 46, an avowed white supremacist, in 1984 confessed to shooting Flynt and his attorney, Gene Reeves. At the time, Franklin was incarcerated at Marion federal prison in Illinois for the 1980 murder of two black men in Salt Lake City, Utah. (He killed them for jogging with white women.)
"I don't think there's any question it was Franklin," says Danny Porter, district attorney of Gwinnett County, Ga., where Flynt and Reeves were shot. Porter, then an assistant district attorney, says that Franklin, in conversations with Georgia law enforcement officers, "was pretty specific about his escape path and describing the interior of the room he was in." Franklin later recanted this confession.
At the same time, Franklin confessed to a 1977 double murder in Madison. Alphonce Manning Jr. and Toni Schwenn, an interracial couple, were shot to death in the parking lot of East Towne mall. Franklin says he originally came to Madison to assassinate Judge Archie Simonson, who had presided over a controversial case in which three black males were acquitted of rape charges involving a white female high school student.
"I just decided to go up there and kill the bastard," Franklin told Madison police detectives. Instead, Franklin noticed Manning and Schwenn in the parking lot just as he saw a police car and thought he was about to be arrested. "So I figured, right at the last minute, if I'm going to go to prison, I'm going to send this nigger and white bitch to hell before I go."
Franklin killed the couple, and fled the scene.
Franklin, also implicated in the May 1980 shooting of National Urban League president Vernon Jordan, was arrested in Florida in October 1980 and prosecuted for the Salt Lake City killings. He received four life sentences, two each from a Utah state court and a federal court. Franklin confessed to the other crimes four years later in an effort to secure a transfer from Marion, where black inmates did not take kindly to his presence.
According to Porter, Franklin "admitted in very general terms that he had shot Flynt and indicated he would be willing to come to Gwinnett County to give details." Shortly before the shooting, Flynt's Hustler magazine had depicted a black man and white woman having sex.
But although Franklin was indicted in 1984 for the Flynt shooting by a Gwinnett County grand jury, he was never brought back to Georgia for prosecution. Porter says it's because Franklin was considered a flight risk. Indeed, he calls it "pretty obvious" that Franklin's goal was to attempt escape. "Our facility down here was incapable of holding anyone as dangerous as Franklin," says Porter.
Attorney Reeves, now a Gwinnett County magistrate court judge, says he and Flynt were consulted about and agreed with this decision, albeit for different reasons. Reeves, who was hit with the same bullet that went through Flynt's back (it tore through Reeves' right arm and lodged in his gall bladder), felt that prosecuting Franklin for the Georgia shootings was pointless since he was already serving several life sentences. (The film represents that another Flynt lawyer, Alan Isaacman, was shot at his side with a separate bullet).
Flynt, meanwhile, felt that Franklin was not the shooter, according to Reeves and Porter, both of whom note that Flynt was heavily medicated at the time and given to conspiracy theories. "I think he even alleged that the president of the United States caused [the shooting]," says Reeves.
But in Madison, then-Dane County District Attorney Hal Harlowe insisted on trying Franklin for the murder of Manning and Schwenn. "Back at that time, before Reagan and Bush got their hands on the criminal justice system, it was impossible to get a guarantee from the Bureau of Prisons that Franklin was going to stay behind bars," says Harlowe, now an attorney in private practice in Madison.
In February 1986, Franklin was tried in a Dane County court, an apron hiding the shackles on his legs from the jury's sight. He pleaded not guilty and testified that his earlier confession was "totally false, totally concocted and fabricated." The jury, after a five-day trial, found Franklin guilty of two counts of murder. Judge William Bryne sentenced him to two additional life sentences, to be served consecutively.
According to a federal inmate locator service, Franklin was last incarcerated at "a state or county jail" and has been in marshal's custody since July 1995. Jim Smith, spokesperson for the U.S. Marshal's Office in Chicago, says Franklin's current location cannot be disclosed: "I don't think anybody from the Marshal's Office or the Bureau of Prisons would give you that information."