A Fair Trial

Isn’t just a fundamental American right…it’s a cornerstone of American liberty, even in the worst cases…

“I have reason to remember that fatal night.  The part I took in defense of Captn. Preston and the soldiers, produced 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.  Judgement of death against those solidness would have been as focal a stain upon this country as the execution of the Quakers or witches, anciently.  As the evidence was, the verdict of the jury was exactly right.

~ John Adams, diary entry for 05 March 1773, the third anniversary of the Boston Massacre


The right to a fair trial is enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.  The sixth amendment codifies an entire set of rules surrounding the idea of a fair trial that are basically designed to prevent the use of the courts as the government’s or society’s vengeance extractors.  Unlike a great many other places, the American court system is designed to be reasonable and fair, and to give people accused of crimes the ability to defend themselves, and to have their “day in court”.  What’s fascinating these days is to hear elected officials publicly state that they believe some people don’t require a fair, American trial at all.  Which is funny because that’s one of those basic freedoms that separates us from the type of people who hate a society with that much freedom.  People who hate the American way of life hate the very freedoms which mean we give fair trials to soldiers who were involved in massacres almost 250 years ago, as well as to modern-day murderers and domestic terrorists.

For those who have forgotten their high school history or who never had the benefit of learning it in the first place, in 1768, the British Army had stationed and quartered troops in Boston, in the hopes they could help coerce cooperation with extremely unpopular British legislation.  Naturally, quite the opposite happened.  The troops present on their streets and in their homes only served to worsen the already tense relationship between the colonists and their elected legislatures, and the Crown officials and laws set forth by Parliament back in Britain.  These tensions erupted on March 5th in 1770.  A mob started and began to harass a British sentry standing duty, which eventually led to more soldiers being called out to support him.  As the crowd grew more abusive, the soldiers grew more nervous and eventually they fired into the crowd without orders from their commander, killing five and wounding more.  Almost immediately, the event became known as the Boston Massacre.  The city of Boston and the rest of New England was incensed.  The media and the public damned the soldiers, and pamphlets depicting the Boston Massacre and calling for the soldiers’ heads were published throughout the colonies.   But the elected colonial government was determined that the soldiers would have a fair trial, primarily so the British would have no cause to retaliate, but also on principle.

One of our founding fathers and earliest Presidents, John Adams, took on this challenge of a fair trial before the Constitution was even written or the Revolution even begun.  Adams, a lawyer, signed on to defend the soldiers after numerous other lawyers both Patriot and Loyalist declined to do so.  Despite knowing it was definitely not a popular move, especially by someone who had thus far come to be associated with the Patriot Cause, Adams did it anyway.  Because Adams believed in justice and the idea of a fair trial.  In the end, some of the soldiers were acquitted and those actually responsible for firing into the crowd were found guilty and punished.  But in the long run, that wasn’t what was most important about the event.  It would galvanize public opinion in the colonies towards the direction of liberty, as Adams would later write: the “foundation of American independence was laid” on the day of the Boston Massacre.  And it truly was, because in the scope of a single event, the colonies showed the true difference between themselves and the type of arbitrary rule they were fighting against.  In America, there was a fair trial even when the most detestable events had occurred.  And in America, there is still a fair trial even for the most heinous of crimes.  Courage and conviction means that even those we despise the most still experience justice under our laws.


Res Publica


Documentation without Representation:

John Adams, diary entry for 05 March 1773, the third anniversary of the Boston Massacre (modern grammatical corrections made by me)


Electronic copy courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society

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