For a criminal defense attorney, there is one question that is asked of us more than any other, “How do you do it? How do you defend those people.”
The prevailing thought is that anyone who is charged with a crime must be guilty (of at least something). My friends, family, and acquaintances believe that I only represent persons charged with the most heinous of crimes, i.e., those they read about in the paper or see on TV. The truth is, there are many times when the government (prosecution) does get it wrong and although I have represented many of those people you read about in the paper, the majority of a criminal defense attorney’s case load consists of persons accused of property and drug related offenses that the paper finds little interest in.
However, “the question” persists. I have an answer that satisfies me, but I have noticed over the years when I begin to deliver my answer I see it fall on the ever deafening ears of my audience. Rather than try to deliver yet another historical referenced and prose laced soliloquy on why I do what I do, I thought it would be better to write about an incident that does provide some background on how I have formed my opinions.
March 5th this year will mark the 144th anniversary of the Boston Massacre. Also known as the Incident on King Street, the Boston Massacre occurred on March 5th, 1770. British troops had been stationed in Boston since 1768 in order to protect officials , who were appointed by the King of England, attempting to enforce British law.
It is important to remember when this happened the Declaration of Independence was just six years away from its drafting. Americans, or at that time colonists, were becoming more and more revolutionary. They did not appreciate being ruled by a monarch from across the Atlantic Ocean, and they certainly did not appreciate it when that same monarch sent his soldiers to keep an eye on his subjects that he felt were not subjecting themselves enough.
The massacre began with an insult. A wigmaker’s apprentice, named Edward Garrick, insulted Captain-Lieutenant John Goldfinch. Private Hugh White called to Garrick that he should be more respectful, the two exchanged insults, and White hit Garrick with the butt of his rifle. Soon after a crowd began to form, and as the evening progressed the crowd became larger and more unruly.
The crowd closed in on the soldiers. The crowd spit on the soldiers and hurled, among other things, insults, small objects, and snow balls. (Yes the seeds of the American Revolution were sown with a snowball fight.) The crowd taunted the soldiers yelling “Fire!”, continuing to provoke them with gaining ferocity. At one point, an object struck Private Hugh Montgomery, knocking him to the ground and causing him to drop his musket. Shortly after he recovered to his feet, a shot was fired into the crowd, then followed by more shots. When the smoke cleared five men lay dead and six more were injured.
What followed was a war of propaganda. Revolutionists used the incident as a rallying cry against imperial rule, and their numbers began to swell dramatically. The great Paul Revere took part by engraving a famous re-enactment of the incident, complete with the commanding officer giving the order to slaughter the unarmed demonstrators. As a result of this propaganda, the colonies were brought to the brink of war, a war that the rag-tag, non-united colonies were prepared to fight, as they would be a less than a decade later.
The government of Massachusetts was determined to give the soldiers a fair trial and appease the tension with England. This grew increasingly difficult over the people’s cries for the noose, and as a result, no self respecting attorney would step forward to represent the damned. After several attorneys declined, even those leaning toward the King, the government went to a revolutionary named John Adams. Adams took the assignment and was joined by John Quincy II, Robert Auchmuty, Sampson Salter Bowers, and Paul Revere. Revere joined the team and drew a detailed map of the bodies that were to be used at trial, but never waivered in his opinion that the soldiers should hang.
Adams argued that the mob endangered the soldiers and that they had a legal right to fire back. To the astonishment of most the jury (composed of many who were not sympathetic to the King or the defense), he agreed and after two and a half hours of deliberation, acquitted the soldiers.
What is astonishing about this story is not so much the acquittal of the soldiers, but rather the courage of Mr. Adams. Not only did his friends and peers hate him for his decision to represent these men, but he hated everything that the men he defended stood for and represented. Just a few years later John Adams would sign a document that led to war and to the death of not only his country men, but British soldiers, just like those six he saved from the gallows. Mr. Adams felt that the rule of law must rise, even the personal feelings of those entrusted with its application, or be subjected ruin.
John Adams went on to become the first Vice President of the United States and the second President of the United States.
Of his decision to represent the British soldiers, Adams wrote in his diary:
“The part I took in defense of Captain Preston and the soldiers, procured me anxiety, and obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces
of service I ever rendered my country. Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently.”