Friday, May 6, 2011

Law in the Movies: The Lincoln Assassination Trial

    If you think you have tough cases consider this: A long and bloody civil war is over; the leader of the winning side is assassinated; those alleged to be involved in the assassination plot are sympathetic to the losing side; the tribunal impanelled to try the alleged conspirators consists of army officers grieving the loss of their commander-in-chief; and the defense counsel is a former member of the army on the winning side of the civil war
    The trial, of course, is of those charged in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
    The lawyer was Frederick Aiken who represented Mary Surratt, one of the alleged conspirators, and the center of Robert Redford's movie The Conspirator.
    Surratt owned the Washington boarding house where the conspirators met, and the movie argues for her tenuous connection to the conspiracy. The film apparently hews to the trial record. 
Inevitably, however, a film script will eliminate many details. I thought the movie a bit flat dramatically, although it can be argued that the film's strength is that it lets the record speak for itself. 
   The film implicitly raises contemporary issues which arise in the wake of September 11, and I suspect that was the director's intent. How does a public trauma such as the assassination of a president or a violent attack on the United States affect the legal system's ability to render fair and impartial judgments? Should these matters be tried by military commissions or civilian juries? A postscript to the film reports that Mary Surratt's son was tried by a civilian jury, the jury was hung, and he was released--a very different fate from that meted out to his mother Mary.
    Historians have rightly focused on the political effects of Lincoln's assassination while the legal aftermath receives little attention. For a large audience The Conspirator will lift the trial from the obscurity it does not deserve.  It is a worthwhile and informative trip to the local movie house for lawyer and nonlawyer alike.   

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