It’s a story that made grim headlines when it happened, and again a decade later, when it was replayed in a Dane County courtroom.
It was all a long time ago, but soon there will likely be one last headline for Joseph Paul Franklin. He’s scheduled to be executed later this month in Missouri.
Franklin was sentenced to death in February 1997 for the October 1977 sniper murder of a member of a synagogue outside of St. Louis.
More than 16 years after sentencing, Franklin, 63, will receive a lethal injection of pentobarbital on Nov. 20, according to a news release last month from the Missouri Department of Corrections.
The St. Louis crime was one of many murders — the estimate is now more than 20 — committed by the notorious serial killer, a self-avowed racist. The majority came after October 1977 (Franklin was apprehended in 1980).
Two did not. In August 1977, in the parking lot of East Towne Mall in Madison, Franklin shot and killed Alphonce Manning Jr. and Toni Schwenn, a young biracial couple. Franklin confessed to Madison police in 1984, while imprisoned in Illinois, a confession he tried to recant during his trial in Dane County court in 1986.
Franklin came to Madison that summer of 1977 planning to kill someone else entirely. His life, long a dark journey, was about to explode.
He’d been born James Clayton Vaughn in Mobile, Ala., son of an alcoholic father who abused the family. The boy read “Mein Kampf” and later changed his name to Joseph Paul Franklin, in part to honor Nazi leader Paul Joseph Goebbels.
In his 1984 confession to Madison detectives, Franklin described how he drove to Madison after bombing a synagogue in Tennessee.
He was enraged at what he considered an inappropriate sentence in a recent Dane County sexual assault case that received national press. Franklin’s target was the judge, Archie Simonson.
“He read about it in Time magazine,” Hal Harlowe, then the Dane County district attorney, recalled last week.
Franklin was planning to confront Simonson. “He was going to knock on his door and shoot him,” Harlowe said.
Instead, Franklin stopped for two female hitchhikers, who asked to be let out at East Towne. In the mall parking lot, after dropping the young women, Franklin got behind the car containing Manning and Schwenn. In some accounts, the cars bumped. Franklin laid on his horn. Manning got out of his car and approached Franklin’s. Franklin reached for a gun under his seat, shot Manning twice, got out of the car and shot Schwenn through the window glass.
After she staggered out of the car, Franklin shot her again.
Both Manning and Schwenn died. Franklin escaped in his car, and the crime remained unsolved until Franklin’s confession — laced with obscenities and racial epithets — seven years later.
Franklin was in the federal prison in Marion, Ill., serving a life sentence for two murders in Utah when he confessed to the Madison killings.
Harlowe’s decision to try Franklin in Madison was somewhat controversial — the expense was considerable, and Franklin was considered an escape risk — but Harlowe felt he owed it to the families of the victims.
He also could get no official assurance that the existing sentence would truly keep Franklin in prison for life.
The Dane County trial commenced in February 1986. Public defender Dennis Burke was Franklin’s original attorney. Last week Burke recalled the high security when he first went to see Franklin at the jail.
“Getting in to see him was like getting in to see Hannibal Lecter,” Burke said. Franklin, Burke thought, liked his notoriety and thought he was smarter than he really was.
Burke eventually left the case after Franklin filed a bogus complaint against him. It left Franklin free to defend himself, which he did, poorly. The court appointed Madison attorney Bill Olson as “stand-by” counsel for Franklin, nearby in court, available to answer questions. Franklin didn’t trust him, Olson recalled last week, and had little to say.
In his opening statement, Franklin said he made up his confession as a way to get out of the prison in Marion. It was about his only defense. The jury was out little more than an hour before coming back with guilty verdicts. Judge William Byrne immediately gave Franklin two consecutive life sentences. Franklin said nothing.
Last week, I spoke with Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., who wrote an article about Franklin last month after the killer contacted him recently “out of the blue,” in Mitchell’s words.
Mitchell had interviewed Franklin years earlier. In the call last month from death row in Missouri, Franklin described himself as a changed man, no longer racist.
In the course of several calls, Mitchell said, they spoke a long time, six hours. I asked if Franklin talked about his Madison crimes, and the reporter said he had, in great detail. “He related the whole thing right down to the sound of the bullets,” Mitchell said. “Pow! Pow!” He paused. “It was chilling.”