Mr. Franklin was a person, who at the time, he was full of hatred, he was one of the few people you could characterize as perhaps 'evil,'. I don't know that I've ever come across in the years that I've been practicing someone that is so full of completely irrational hate at the time we represented him. —Defense attorney Ed Brass
SALT LAKE CITY — The first time defense attorney Ed Brass met his new client, Joseph Paul Franklin, they were in the holding cell of the U.S. Marshals Office in the basement of Salt Lake City's federal courthouse.
"He was a pretty fascinating individual, adhered to some pretty evil beliefs," Brass said Wednesday. "It was an interesting experience to say the least.
"Mr. Franklin was a person who, at the time, he was full of hatred, he was one of the few people you could characterize as perhaps 'evil,'" Brass recalled Wednesday. "I don't know that I've ever come across in the years that I've been practicing someone that is so full of completely irrational hate at the time we represented him."
After a last-minute stay delayed his execution by several hours, Franklin, 63, was put to death by lethal injection early Wednesday in Missouri. He is believed to have murdered between 20 and 22 people from 1977 through 1980. Prosecutors say Franklin was on a cross-country mission to start a race war by randomly killing people, particularly those in interracial situations.
"He would rob banks to get the money he needed to fund his travels to go from place to place shooting people," Brass said. "With one or two exceptions, these people were targeted just on the spur of the moment."
Franklin's hate-filled murder spree ended in Salt Lake City with the shooting deaths of David Martin, 18, and Ted Fields, 20, two black men who were killed while jogging with two white women in Liberty Park on Aug. 20, 1980. Franklin positioned himself with a high-powered rifle in a vacant field just outside the park boundaries on the corner of 900 South and 500 East where today a senior citizens center sits on one corner and a coffee shop on the other.
Brass said he originally wasn't sure Franklin could have committed the murders because he was legally blind in one eye and almost blind in the other. That was confirmed, Brass said, by an eye doctor in Utah. The rounds that killed Martin and Fields were almost miracle shots, he said.
Franklin was convicted in federal court in Utah with violating Martin's and Fields' civil rights by killing them because of race. He was later convicted of two counts of murder in state court.
Brass represented Franklin for a little more than a year during his federal trial. Although at that time he believed Franklin was full of incomprehensible hate and rage, it never affected his representation of his client and he never shared his opinion of Franklin while he was alive.
Franklin was very open about his hate, Brass said, which was ultimately his downfall. During the short time he was in Salt Lake City, Franklin "was so incapable of restraining his racist beliefs" that he shared those with everyone he came in contact with — whether they were a restaurant server, a motel clerk or a prostitute.
"In the days between his arrival and his actual shooting, he made all sorts of inflammatory statements to all sorts of people that the government located and were able to produce at trial," Brass said. "(His comments) were so extreme and out there and hateful that these people didn't forget him."
When those people started testifying against him at trial, Brass said Franklin's anger would start to show, as if he felt betrayed by those he had conversations with. As prosecutors got more into their case, Brass said Franklin had a "great deal of difficulty" controlling his temper, until he finally exploded on the day he was sentenced.
"When he got sentenced, he tried to go after the judge," Brass recalled. "Before he could get three or four feet to him, he was in shackles."
Franklin also had a beloved Camaro that he used for his cross-country killing spree.
"One of his concerns when he got convicted was what would happen to his Camaro," Brass said.
Franklin had serious mental problems, the attorney said, but they did not rise to the level of incompetency.
Franklin was sentenced to life in prison for his federal conviction in Utah. But he served little of that time. After his Utah conviction, Franklin spent many years being shipped from state to state to stand trial for the crimes he committed in other parts of the country. He was ultimately sentenced to death for the 1977 sniper shooting of Gerald Gordon at a bar mitzvah at the Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation in suburban St. Louis. Brass recalled another one of Franklin's delusional beliefs was that present-day Jewish people had descended from a tribe in Russia.
Despite his crimes and his hatred at the time, Brass — a death penalty opponent — believes Franklin had changed in the final years of his life.
"It was apparent to me that Mr. Franklin found some peace or solace in religion, that he became a person that was more introspective. He became more accepting of his fellow human beings," Brass said. "I hope Joe's at peace."