You’ve heard of the Boston Massacre but did you know that a founding father and president of the United States put his popularity and reputation on the line to defend the accused British killers? Enjoy this real crime drama in US History and the story of John Adams and the Boston Massacre Trials.
Facts of the Case:
On March 5, 1770 relations between the American colonists and British soldiers came to a head when a crowd of rowdy colonial residents, irate over the heavy-handed tax policies enforced by the British Crown by way of the Townshend Acts, confronted Captain Thomas Preston and eight of his soldiers in front of the Customs House in Boston. Tension filled the air as the soldiers formed a semi-circle and the shouting crowd inched closer. Gunshots rang out as various soldiers fired into the crowd after an airborne club struck one of them. Five colonists were killed in what became known as the Boston Massacre, a pivotal occurrence in the events leading to the Revolutionary War.
Captain Preston and his soldiers were eventually indicted on charges of murder and faced death sentences upon conviction. At the request of Thomas Gage, commander of the British troops stationed in America, Governor Thomas Hutchinson delayed the trials about seven months in order to allow public fervor to cool down. The defendants (understandably) had trouble securing defense counsel for their respective trials until John Adams, a brilliant, ambitious, 35-year-old attorney took the case.
With regard to his decision to represent the hated men, he stated afterward:
“The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. 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. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”
Captain Peterson’s Trial:
Captain Preston’s case was one of the first criminal trials to utilize a sequestered jury, and hinged upon whether he ordered the men to fire. Over the course of six days, eyewitnesses and supposed eyewitnesses provided testimony largely concerning the word, “Fire.” After much deliberation, Captain Preston was acquitted over the prosecution’s inability to prove the case beyond a “reasonable doubt.” Fascinatingly, this is one of the first times, if not the very first time, that the prosecution was held to the reasonable doubt standard.
Trial of the 8 British Soldiers:
Adams employed a different defense strategy in the trial of the other soldiers. Rather than focus upon the supposed order to fire, he maintained a strategy of self-defense, arguing that the soldiers could lawfully defend themselves from “a motley rabble of saucy boys… Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars.” Six of the eight soldiers were acquitted. The two who were found guilty escaped death sentences as they were convicted of manslaughter. Their thumbs were branded with the letter “M” to ensure that they would be granted no leniency if ever brought before the court again.
While the tragic events of March 5, 1770 paved the way for the Revolutionary War, the courageous Founding Father demonstrated that justice is blind and diligent legal defense can work miracles. John Adams put a great deal on the line as he sought truth and justice rather than popularity when he decided to represent soldiers of the very country he was willing to go to war against. His efforts for his country paid off as he became the 2nd President of the United States of America. The Boston Massacre will forever be remembered as sparking a war, but the trials demonstrated that US jurisprudence is based on truth, justice, and civility.
McGuckin Law represents “motley rabbles,” “Irish Teagues,” and “outlandish jacktars” throughout the Jersey Shore. If you find yourself in one of the above categories and wearing handcuffs, give us a call for “gallant, generous, and manly” criminal defense.