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Verdicts Of History I: The Boston Massacre
Even the worst offender, even the most unpopular cause, deserves a good lawyer. Our example is a passionate moment in Boston on the eve of the Revolution, when John Adams undertook to defend the hatred British soldiers who had fired into a Boston mob and created some “martyrs.” There are echoes of our own times in the trial that followed
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
Adams began with a direct and simple statement of his professional role: “I am for the prisoners at the bar.” He would apologize for it, he said, only in the words of Cesare Beccaria, the eminent Italian jurist of the period: “If I can but be the instrument of preserving one life, his blessing and tears of transport shall be a sufficient consolation to me, for the contempt of all mankind.”
In a quiet, matter-of-fact voice Adams proceeded to explain the law of homicide to the jury, and then applied the legal principle of self-defense to the situation of the soldiers in King Street, “with all the bells ringing to call the town together … [and] they knew by that time that there was no fire; the people shouting, huzzaing, and making the mob whistle … , which when a boy makes it in the street is no formidable thing, but when made by a multitude is a most hideous shriek, almost as terrible as an Indian yell; the people crying, ‘Kill them! Kill them! Knock them over!’ heaving snowballs, oyster shells, clubs, white birch sticks …” Consider, he asked the jury, whether any reasonable man in the soldiers’ situation would not have concluded the mob was going to kill him.
Next he cited the law on riot: “Wheresoever more than three persons use force or violence, for the accomplishment of any design whatever, all concerned are rioters.” Were there not more than three persons in Dock Square? Did they not agree to go to King Street and attack the main guard? Why hesitate then to call this so-called assembly a riot?
Perhaps at this point Adams saw the jurors’ faces clouding. He swiftly led their emotions in the opposite direction by distinguishing between rioters and rebels. “I do not mean to apply the word rebel on this occasion: I have no reason to suppose that ever there was one in Boston, at least among the natives of the country; but rioters are in the same situation as far as my argument is concerned, and proper officers may suppress rioters and so may even private persons.”
From 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. Adams examined the law and the evidence, frequently reading directly from authorities to bolster his arguments. The next morning he continued his summation, examining the testimony of various witnesses. He dismissed the Crown’s attempt to prove Killroy’s malice. “Admitting that this testimony is literally true and that he had all the malice they would wish to prove, yet if he was assaulted that night and his life in danger, he had a right to defend himself as well as another man.”
The witnesses who had described Crispus Attucks’ belligerent behavior were cited. Attucks was, said Adams, “a stout mulatto fellow whose very looks was enough to terrify any person … He had heartiness enough to fall in upon them [ i.e. , the soldiers] and with one hand took hold of the bayonet and with the other knocked the man down.” It was to Attucks’ “mad behavior, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed.”
Proving he could play on the prejudices of the jurors as skillfully as he could cite the law, Adams added: “And it is in this manner this town has been often treated; a Carr from Ireland and an Attucks from Framingham, happening to be here, shall sally out upon their thoughtless enterprises, at the head of such a rabble of negroes, etcetera, as they can collect together, and then there are not wanting persons to ascribe all their doings to the good people of the town.”
The law, Adams declared, was clear. The soldiers had a right to kill in their own defense. If the attack on them was not so severe as to endanger their lives, yet if they were assaulted at all, the law reduces their offense to manslaughter.
Finally came a soaring peroration. To your candor and justice I submit the prisoners and their cause. The law, in all vicissitudes of government, fluctuations of the passions, or flights of enthusiasm, will preserve a steady, undeviating course. It will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men … On the one hand it is inexorable to the cries and lamentations of the prisoners; on the other it is deaf, deaf as an adder, to the clamors of the populace.
Once more Robert Treat Paine strove to rescue the prosecution’s collapsing case. But he was in retreat all the way. “I am sensible, gentlemen,” he began, “I have got the severe side of the question to conduct.” He wasted time trying to justify the presence of so many armed citizens on the streets, renewing the argument that the soldiers had started the trouble first. He had nothing whatsoever to say about Doctor Jeffries’ report of Carr’s words, insisting instead on his witnesses’ versions of the conduct of Attucks and Gray: “Attucks, fifteen feet off leaning on his stick, Gray, twelve feet off with his hand in his bosom.” He ended by concentrating his fire on Killroy, calling his deliberate murder of Gray “beyond dispute.” He all but gave up on the other soldiers in his closing lines. “You must unavoidably find him [i.e., Killroy] guilty of murder. What your judgement should think of the rest, though the evidence is undoubtedly the fullest against him, yet it is full enough against the rest.”