published Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Interview with a serial killer: Joseph Paul Franklin

  • photo
    In this file photo taken Monday, Oct. 19, 1998, Joseph Paul Franklin sits in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Audio clip

Joseph Paul Franklin

In an hour-long phone interview with the Times Free Press from the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Mo., where he sits on death row for shooting a man dead outside a St. Louis synagogue in 1977, racist serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin said he is remorseful for the people he had killed.

He talked about his childhood, how his upbringing influenced his decisions, and why he targeted Chattanooga, where he bombed a synagogue in 1977 and killed a man exactly one year later. He also talked about life after death, and what he believes will happen to him. The interview has been edited for concision and to remove contact information about Franklin's family members.


Q: It's Nov. 13 right now. As of now, you are slated to be put to death on Nov. 20. Just to start, this might be one of your last opportunities to say something that could reach your victims and the families of your victims. What would you like to say to them?

A: Well, I would like to tell them I apologize for the harm that I have caused them and ask for their forgiveness, first of all. That's most important. I wish there was something more I could do for them, help them out. But I'm locked up in here. My options are kind of limited. I'm glad nobody was killed at the synagogue bombing down there. That is for sure. I've thought about that a lot of times. The Lord kept me from killing anybody from there. That time, anyway.

Q: When you went to trial on that case, you said you wished that you had killed people. And now you say you wish you hadn't killed people. Why have you had a change of heart?

A: I've changed a whole lot and I've got into -- I've gone and changed a whole lot. I've learned a whole lot. I've had a whole lot of time, many years, to think things through. It really makes a difference when you acquire a lot more knowledge than you had before. I was pretty much uneducated, mentally ill on the streets before I got locked up. Like I tell a lot of reporters, my mind was about 10 years behind everybody else's -- or maybe 15 or more years behind -- in its development because of all the abuse that I suffered during my childhood. My mind was warped. Being abused a lot will actually warp your brain, to tell you the truth. They've proven that.

Q: Have you been diagnosed as mentally ill?

A: I've been diagnosed by Dr. Dorothy Lewis (a psychiatry professor specializing in serial killers) as, I think, paranoid schizophrenic -- something like that. I would go through these periods, man, where I would just feel for weeks really bad. I just, after being locked up a lot in your childhood and not being able to socialize, you know, having to stay inside and sit on the couch for a good part of your life, you find that you don't have the social skills that other people have -- the ability to socialize with other people. It kind of warps your brain. I can't really explain it. But yeah, I've been diagnosed with mental illness by Dorothy Lewis and also by (inaudible). He diagnosed me with a major case of obsessive compulsive disorder. One of the symptoms of that, you'll actually feel an inner voice telling you to kill people. One example was: When I was at the federal penitentiary in Marion (Ill.) during the '80s, one of the guards was escorting me out to rec. He was by himself at the time. This was before the lockdown there. We were cuffed in front, and I was walking behind him. I had my hands cuffed, and I had a voice tell me to throw my hands over that guard's head and strangle him to death. I immediately rejected that thought because I liked the guard. He was a good guy. That's one case I specifically remember.

(Note: Franklin's relationship with Lewis was detailed in a 1997 article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell.)

Q: You've mentioned a couple of times that you were abused as a child. Can you elaborate on that? Who abused you, and what kind of abuse were you going through?

A: My mama was the one abusing me because she was abused by her own mother. She told her that Mort used to beat her. She called her Mort for some reason or another: Her mother. She told us one time that Mort was beating her really bad and she was crying and yelling. And so Mort stuck a piece of cloth down in her mouth to stop her from yelling when she was beating her. And the cloth got stuck in her throat and she almost strangled from that. Her mother used to beat her, and she was returning the favor on her own children. And she, for some reason, loved to beat her children. She would walk up behind you when you were eating and with a big hand slap you in the face. It would almost knock me off the chair. She'd go, "Sit up there and eat that right," like I was doing something wrong while I was sitting there eating breakfast in the morning. It kind of made you real nervous, too. But she was always yelling, you know? It seemed she didn't want to give anybody a moment's peace. She didn't want anyone to relax at all around her. She always wanted a fight.

(Note: Franklin says his mother died at the age of 58 after a heart attack and a stroke.)

Q: Growing up, how much did you interact with black people and Jewish people?

A: There were no blacks in the school, except toward the last part of it. I really didn't have much contact with blacks in school. I remember some Jewish students who attended Murphy High School (in Mobile, Ala.). There was a woman by the name of Petina Rose. I still remember her name. She would go from classroom to classroom, giving talks on Judaism. Evidently, she was pretty much into it. I never had any conversations with her. She was one of the popular kids and I was one of the nerds, you know? I just had a really introverted personality because of the way I was treated at home. I wasn't able to talk and socialize with the other students, like most of them could.

Q: Do you remember when your racism and anti-Semitism began?

A: It started when I got involved with the American Nazi Party in '68 -- the year after I quit going to church. I was affiliated with a church that taught British Israelism. (Note: British Israelism is a doctrine teaching that Western Europeans are the lineal descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel.)

Q: How did you end up joining the American Nazis? Why did you join?

A: I found out about them back in August of '67. I was living in Atlanta at the time, and Rockwell got assassinated -- (American Nazi Party founder) George Lincoln Rockwell. It was Aug. 25, I think, 1967. I began reading the articles in the paper about the American Nazi Party and later on became interested in it, thought I would join their organization. I got their address and began corresponding with them in '68 and then moved to Arlington (Va.) in '69. I just was kind of open to it because my family on my mother's side was German, and they had some pictures of their relatives, I guess. They sent them from Germany with a couple of the guys wearing the uniforms and armbands of the Hitler Youth Movement.

(Later in the conversation)

I kind of felt familiar with the Nazi party since my relatives were affiliated with it over in Germany. It was only after I began reading that literature, I became obsessed with it. Most members of the party were young like me. After a little while they would drop out, lead normal lives. But I kept with it, you know, stuck with it. I was pretty much a loner, too, so I just wasn't a part of the mainstream when I was growing up as a young adult.

Q: Do you remember the first time you killed somebody?

A: That was in Madison, Wis. When I first started my mission? Let's see. August the 7th, I think. 1977.

Q: And who did you kill?

A: It was a black man and a white woman. They were together in a car. I just killed both of them at that time.

Q: Why did you decide to kill them?

A: Well, it started when I was going up to Madison to kill a judge. Judge Archie Simonson. He was involved in a case that had gotten national publicity at about the time I started my mission. So I thought I'd go up there and kill the guy, you know? Show them what to do with people like that. And not being from that state, they probably wouldn't be able to figure out who committed the crime, you see what I'm saying? There ain't a whole lot of people who got the nerve to go up to a judge and kill him for a decision that he made.

(Note: In 1977, three Madison, Wis., teenage boys were accused of raping a 16-year-old girl. Charges against one of the boys was dropped, and Simonson sentenced the other attackers to parole and juvenile detention. He was recalled for his decision.)

(Later in the conversation)

I was in the process of looking for him, and I got a map and everything. Picked up two girls and gave them a ride to the mall. I went up to the mall, got into an altercation with a black male who was in the car there. Shot and killed him, and then shot and killed the woman too. Then I peeled out and took off. That's how it turned out that I killed an interracial couple. I had not even planned on killing them.

Q: Why did you target interracial couples?

A: I just thought that I would commit enough racial crimes like that to make the national media pay attention to it. I was unaware that they were pretty much keeping each incident confined only to its own city. No publicity was given to most of them. Even though they say there was similarities among all the cases, they still would not report it until I got caught in 1980 as something going on nationally.

Q: But why did you want the national media to pay attention to your slayings of interracial couples?

A: I was trying to kill blacks and interracial couples to get the publicity so that other white nationalists would see what was happening, start trying to follow suit and kill them themselves. But it never happened. When they found out about it, they still wouldn't do it. They just didn't have the type of mindset I had. I was the type of guy who would go out, believing that Nazi philosophy and everything and walk the talk, too. Others were just talkers.

Q: When you killed this interracial couple in Wisconsin, do you remember how you felt after you did it?

A: I felt afraid that I would get caught, to tell you the truth. It kind of traumatized me, to tell you the truth. I had never actually shot anybody before, and I felt traumatized by it. Just to see somebody dying like that. I couldn't get it out of my mind for a long time. Every time I would smell gunpowder, it would remind me of that incident.

Q: If you felt traumatized by the initial killing, can you explain why you continued to target these interracial couples?

A: I just felt it was my job, that that was what the order of the Lord was, that he wanted me to kill people, which shows you how demented my thinking was.

Q: There has been a lot of speculation about how many people you have killed in total. Do you know how many people you have killed?

A: Yeah but I would rather not divulge that information. That's a military secret.

Q: Why is it classified?

A: Just because, you know. It's of a military nature. The only thing I will tell you is it was in the early 20 something. To tell you the truth, I really don't know the number myself.

Q: You don't know how many people you killed?

A: I really don't know exactly how much it was myself.

Q: In these moments before you would kill somebody, do you remember what went through your mind, what you were feeling at the time?

A: Sometimes fear. It was always present: The fear that you would get caught, that something would go wrong. You could always get caught leaving the scene or something, be confronted by a police officer, have to shoot it out right there. You know what I mean? It was always that problem, that danger. Fear was basically one of the main things. Just wanting to get away with it, too. It wasn't any kind of sick feeling, if that's what you mean. I wouldn't enjoy doing it.

Q: Why did you choose Chattanooga to bomb that synagogue in 1977?

A: I can't really recall why I chose that city, you know, instead of Atlanta. I knew more about Atlanta. I don't really know why I chose it. I guess kind of random. Just picked it out, I guess.

Q: At the synagogue, the bomb went off at 9 p.m. They were meeting at 7:30 and the meeting was supposed to last until 8:30. Do you know why the bomb went off at 9?

A: I don't know why, but I'm sure glad it did, at 9, after they left. You know what I mean? I would have all that grief to worry about, too. That bad karma that I would generate from that. I just wasn't aware at the time, being mentally ill, that I was generating such bad karma, you know what I mean. The Lord does not want us killing people, committing violence like that, especially at a house of worship. I was just not in my right mind. I was not my true self. I don't feel the same way as I did then. I regret bombing the synagogue and wish it had never happened, you know? I wish I could time travel back and change my conduct at the time. But that's going to be impossible. But I wish there was something I could do for them.

Q: You've said that you feel bad about what you've done because you've acquired new knowledge. What new knowledge have you acquired?

A: It all started with a book that I found in a library called, "How Your Mind Can Keep You Well" written by a gentleman by the name Roy Masters.

(Note: Written in 1978, "How Your Mind Can Keep You Well" was billed as a work that "explores our root cause of unhappiness and suffering." Franklin said the book helped him deal with his obsessive compulsive disorder.)

Q: Why did your obsessive-compulsive disorder lead you to feel anti-Semitic and racist?

A: It didn't really lead me to feel anti-Semitic and racist. But once I became anti-Semitic and racist, I became obsessed with it, whereas others without obsessive compulsive disorder didn't become obsessed with it.

Q: So once you became anti-Semitic and racist, you became an obsessive racist and an obsessive anti-Semite?

A: Basically, that was it. Others, they would have an average attitude toward it while I became obsessed with it, unlike other people. I think that became a pretty big part of making me actually want to go out and kill people like that. But anyway, to get back to the reason why I changed, I changed because I began reading the man's books and practicing meditation. It changed my entire life.

Q: When was this?

A: I started meditating March 17, 1985, when I went to federal penitentiary in Marion. I began reading the man's books, and it's pretty strong stuff that actually just about drove me crazy because the meditation is very strong. I've heard that other people actually have flipped out and went into the mental institution.

(Later in the conversation)

I was reading one of his other books and he was talking about his rabbi. I thought, "Oh no." I took all the literature and threw it in the trash when I found out he was Jewish. So I got rid of some stuff. Later on, I kicked back and started thinking, "Wait a minute now. If this stuff is helping me, even though he's a Jew, maybe I should just stick with it." I was in my mid-30s at the time. A person who was a Jew, unbeknown to him, saved my life. I would not be standing here today, talking to you, if it had not for Roy Masters.

Q: Now you had read Mein Kampf growing up, correct?

A: Yeah I read Mein Kampf. Not growing up. I was a teenager, 18 years old, when I read it. He was my god man first, you know? I was just convinced in my life for many years that Naziism was the right way. Any good person would believe in Naziism. I thought that was just the correct way. It's just amazing how my opinions changed over the years. I see things as they really are now. My mind isn't warped like it was. I'm much more aware. The meditation is known to raise people's level of awareness.

Q: Why did you confess to the bombing in Chattanooga in 1984?

A: I was put in a bad situation at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill. Had some guards stabbed, and they locked the whole prison down and took away -- even though most of us inmates weren't involved in that, especially those of us in the K unit, where the inmates lived with broad publicity, like me.

Q: So you wanted to get out of Marion, Ill., penitentiary?

A: Yeah I wanted to get the funk out of there for a while, just to get away from the guards.

Q: That's why you confessed to the synagogue bombing?

A: That's the only reason I confessed to the synagogue bombing.

Q: Now you were convicted of killing a man here in Chattanooga as well. Why?

A: Mainly because he was with a white woman.

Q: They were leaving a Pizza Hut and you stood a couple of yards away from them when you shot them.

A: Yeah I was pretty close, too. Right there in that tall grass. They couldn't see me because of the grass there. I hit him with a shotgun, and then I tried to shoot her but missed, or just wounded her.

Q: Were you lying down in the grass when you did this?

A: I wasn't lying down. I was just kind of kneeling down. If I had been lying down, I wouldn't have even been able to see them, if the grass was so high.

Q: How tall was the grass?

A; It was a couple of feet high. Two feet or more.

Q: What kind of shotgun was this?

A: It was a pump shotgun. I could not use a bolt-action shotgun because of my handicap. I'm legally blind in my right eye. I would always have to use a pump shotgun or a pump rifle or a lever-action rifle or a semi-automatic. I could not use a bolt action because they would have the bolt on the right. I could not see through that scope with the bolt.

Q: What kind of bullets did you use?

A: Double-ought buckshot. I usually got the most powerful bullet I could, to kill them immediately. Really, it turned out to work that way. As soon as they were hit with the magnum or these shotgun shells, they were pretty much down instantly. Just a second, and they were out. And I would always try to hit them by surprise so they would not know what it was all about.

Q: So after you shot these people in Chattanooga, how did you get away?

A: I had the car parked behind the Pizza Hut with the hood up so if any cop came by they would just think, "Oh, somebody just left their car there, had car trouble."

Q: Why did you confess to that crime in 1995, 17 years later?

A: I was told in a dream to confess to that one, too. I was told in a dream to confess to one in Richmond Heights (Mo., where Franklin killed a man outside of a synagogue). And later I had another dream that told me to confess to one in Chattanooga. Otherwise, it would have never occurred to me to tell them about all those cases. And it saved my life because the guards were fixin' to murder me over there (in Marion, Ill.). It gave me a way to get out of there, away from all those murderous (explicit) over at the U.S. penitentiary in Marion. So, anyway, that's the only reason why I wind up confessing: just because I was told to in those dreams.

Q: Can you describe what a typical day is like for you now?

A: I'll tell you one thing, over the past couple of months I've been on the phone like you would not believe.

(Later in the conversation)

Well, I've been, because of the warrant that they read back in August, I've been on the phone a whole lot. I've probably made more phone calls and talked to more people in the past two weeks than I've spoke to the whole 33 years I've been locked up. That's no exaggeration. I've been talking to lawyers, media, my friends. I've been talking a whole lot. But normally, I would be in my cell working out now or walking back and forth in my cell. I'm in solitary confinement. I've been locked up in solitary confinement for a long time, ever since I got stabbed in the federal penitentiary. I'm into meditation, praying every day. I do a Buddhist chant. I do a chant every day. And I study.

Q: What do you study?

A: If I find any quotes in a book, for example -- a book or a magazine or a newspaper -- I'll write it down, the quotes, and try to study it, just to try to memorize that saying. That's basically what I do every day.

(Later in the conversation.)

I kind of like being isolated from the inmate and being able to come out here and make phone calls to people every day, anytime I want to. They will let me out of my cell at any time of night or day to place a phone call. I should have been given this privilege all along, all these 16 years, since I've been on death row. I think it's only fair that they let an inmate who's locked down in solitary confinement make calls just like inmates on death row and in the general population, because we need to be able to talk to our lawyers just as much as they do.

Q: You're still scheduled to be put to death in a week. Is there anything you wish you could do between now and then?

A: There's a whole lot of things I wish I could do between now and then. A great many things. I would like all these doors to fly open and walk out of here. That would be the start, the first thing. I would like to get out of here, to tell you the truth.

Q: Do you think you deserve to get out?

A: Only God knows. I generated a lot of bad karma through the violence I did there. It's a bad thing to do. You really do generate bad karma by committing violence, murdering people like that. It was the wrong thing to do. I just didn't realize it at the time. I thought it was a great thing. I would like to have a chance, though, to make amends for what I've done. I'd like to get out and do a lot of good for people. It's called "alleviating suffering" in Buddhism. It's mainly what I'm focused on now: Alleviating everybody's suffering that I possibly can and helping people and generating good karma to offset the bad karma I've already generated.

Q: You want the families of your victims to forgive you? Do you think you deserve to be forgiven?

A: Since I've repented and changed, I think so. I don't want to say they have to do it. I don't want to try to make any judgments on them if they don't forgive me. I understand why they don't. I accept that. It's their life and their decision. I ain't going to go up there and say, "You're supposed to forgive me." I'm just not the type of guy to try to force my beliefs on anybody or say that they're wrong for this or that. I'm just a little more easygoing than most people. I don't really get uptight about stuff like that.

Q: When's the last time you've seen your daughter?

A: It's been many years ago. She was about 11 months old when I was on the streets and went and stopped by to visit (his ex-wife) Anita. I remember her sitting in my lap. She had real blonde hair when she was little. You know how that little girl looks in the funny paper? A comic strip called "Hi and Lois." She looked like that little blonde-hair girl in that comic strip. Little blonde, curly hair, just like that.

Q: Some people believe you saying that you're sorry for what you have done is just a ploy to avoid the death penalty. What do you say to that?

A: That ain't it. I just ain't that type of person. I couldn't be that fake. I don't like fakes and phonies. I'm just not the type of person to make up something like that. I would be doing the same thing if I wasn't facing an execution.

Q: You're saying you began to change in 1985. I found a transcript of an interview you did in 1997 when you were on trial in St. Louis. You told them, "The only thing that I'm sorry about is that it's not legal." They asked, "What's not legal." You said, "Killing Jews." Can you explain how you said that 12 years after you changed?

A: Explain the discrepancy, you mean?

Q: You said you changed in 1985, and that's a quote from 1997.

A: Yeah. I had to say that to get them to indict me and want to give me the death sentence. To tell you the truth, I was just saying that. It was a matter of life and death. The murderous (explicit) at the Marion federal penitentiary wanted to kill me. I had to use language like that. I hated to say that because it wasn't true. I actually had to use language like that just to, No. 1, get them to want to indict me. And then I said I had to say the same type of thing during the penalty phase of my trial. I had to make sure that, once the jury came back with a decision on that, it would not be "life without." Because if I got life, I would get sent straight back to Marion, where I would be murdered by those (explicit).

Q: Assuming that you die a week from today, what do you think is going to happen to you after you die?

A: Only God knows. I'm confident myself because I try to obey the Lord, keep his commandments. I'm a little more into the religion thing. I've met inmates before who claim to be Christians. Most of them I would say are pretty much fakes. The evidence bears this out.

(Later in the conversation)

It's a real serious situation that we're in now. Most people, I guarantee you, you tell them, there is a hell. This was shown to me by the Lord in a vision when I was at the Madison, Wis., jail. They'll say, "I won't believe it." And they think just because they don't believe it, it's not true, it won't be there.

Q: You say that you're a Christian, that you believe in God. Why do you think God would forgive you for killing 20-something people?

A: Because he forgives. The Bible teaches that. The Bible tells me so. Even if you commit murder -- and I've committed some very serious crimes out there -- if you repent and change and really ask the Lord for forgiveness, he will forgive us of our sins. Jesus said, "All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of man."

(Later in the conversation)

I know this is going to sound kind of strange to you, but I began hearing a voice in my right ear. It was a woman's voice, by the way. Only in my right ere, never in the left. I'll give you one example of when I first started hearing the voice. There was a man. I've never met a worse inmate hater in all my life. He was always trying to drive me out and other inmates, get a fight started. He tries to get some crap started with me one morning. I started cussing him out from my cell. All of a sudden I heard this voice, a woman's voice, saying in my ear, "No." Could you hear that? The voice would go, "No." That's exactly how the voice would sound. I would hear a woman's voice, very clear and distinct, right by my right ear, saying that. Every time I would start doing something wrong that the voice didn't like, the voice would say the same thing: "No." Never any other word at all. Just that one word: "No." I consider that guidance from the Holy Spirit. I also get guidance from the Lord in dreams, visions. I got very much into the numbers during the late '80s. I had never heard at that time of numerology. I also get a lot of guidance through numerology.

Q: This time next week, you could be dead. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I'm willing to accept whatever the will of the Lord is. That's basically it.

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