Book review: Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case that Propelled Him to the Presidency

Lincoln’s Last Trial recounts an intriguing murder trial in mid-19th century Springfield, IL. Most of the town knew each other all their lives. The families of the defendant and the victim were united through marriage. The lawyers knew each other. Some people had run against each other for elected office. It was an odd situation where friends and former colleagues were on opposite sides.

The trial is a vehicle to examine small town lawyering, legal norms, and Lincoln before he ascended to the presidency. Lincoln remains a mystery but points are drawn out based on this trial and previous trials where he was a prosecuting or defending lawyer. Lincoln, the book argues, wove an image of himself as a folksy, down-to-earth, small town lawyer. His clothes were worn and his hair askew. It turns out that he really did store his papers in his stovepipe hat.

But his rumpled appearance was a ruse. His modus operandi was to build a friendly rapport with the jury—he is just like them. He looks like them. He talks like them.

And yet. We know he is not like them. When situations warranted it, he dropped the ruse and defended positions in the courtroom with an articulate and polished force. During these times he was a sight behold. People flocked to the courtroom to see him perform. Or at least to see him perform in this murder trial.

The novel is based on stenographic notes that Robert Roberts Hitt had written during the trial. Hitt was trained in a new technique of note taking. The quality of transcripts that he produced was so outstanding that he was in high demand. He had transcribed notes for Lincoln in the past and was specifically called to record this trial.

It is all by a twist of fate that we have the details for the Harrison-Crafton trial. We only have the details thanks to his notes of the trial. Stored in a garage in California. Discovered by chance in 1989.

The book recounts interesting historical tidbits, not just about Lincoln, but about legal customs. Under Illinois law, defendants could not take the stand in their own defense. Without Harrison testifying that he knew about threats to his life, how would Lincoln prove that he acted in self-defense?

But most interesting observations about legal norms came from Hitt who had transcribed trials in large cities like Chicago. Hitt noted the differences between small town courtrooms and big city courtrooms. The norms of the former were likely formed by the informal rules of circuit trials, which often were held in impromptu places. Jurors asked questions of witnesses in the middle of the trial with no cause for concern. Witnesses were allowed to freely give their accounts of stories without interruption or objections.

Some descriptions made me laugh out loud. The trial, which involved two local families, was highly anticipated and well attended. The courtroom was packed and standing room only. As a nod to the customs of the time, normally gentlemen would give up their seats for ladies present. But this trial was too important. Men wanted to attend without standing the entire time.

“As he [Hitt] waited for the proceedings to begin, spectators filled all the seats and standing room in the back and on the sides of the courtroom. There were a few women among them, but Hitt noticed with some amusement that the seated men tried to appear natural as they desperately avoided meeting the eyes of a woman, lest he would be compelled to give up his precious seat. But in several instances they were unsuccessful and, with a defeated shrug gave up their seats and joined those standing.” (page 60)

In another case, the response to questions posed in jury selection showed a quick wit (or slow obtrusiveness) on the part of the potential juror. “…’Are you sober? [asked the lawyer to a potential juror.] To which came the response, ‘You mean, right now?’” (page 67)

Dr. Allen, a witness for the defense, was a good friend of Lincoln’s and encouraged him to go into politics. “Dr. Allen had organized and ran the first Sunday school in the village, which proved very popular, but also had founded the local Temperance Society, which was exceedingly less so.” (page 193)

Lincoln’s Last Trial shows us a Lincoln that we already know as well as one that we may not. Lincoln the everyman comes across as a shrewd political operator. He sized up situations, typically hiding his intellect but bringing it to play at key times. He was ever observant and he knew how to ingratiate himself. But he was also a man of integrity who would not defend someone he didn’t believe in or prosecute someone whom he thought was innocent.

The myth of Lincoln looms so large. How much of the image in the book depicts the real Lincoln and how much the legend that he became?

Movie review: 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (2015)

I was woefully ignorant of the case this documentary covers. So the outcome of the trials (there were two) was a surprise to me. I literally gasped.

3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets premiered at Sundance and quickly drew accolades. (The movie currently has an 100% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) The documentary covers the trial of Michael Dunn, who was accused of shooting at a car holding a quartet of African-American teenagers on November 23, 2012. Jordan Davis died. The three other teenagers miraculously escaped harm.

Scenes from the trial are interspersed with clips from the parents of Jordan, the teenager killed. The documentary also shows clips from Michael Dunn’s interview in police custody following the trial as well as recordings of his phone conversations from jail to his finance, the woman with him at the time of the shootings.

The killings and the trial can be seen from a multiplicity of perspectives. At its center, though not belabored at the trial or in the documentary, is Florida’s controversy Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to shoot to kill if they perceive that they are threatened. This boogeyman of a law potentially hampers justice. Even if you think justice would be served by convicting Dunn of killing Davis, the law demands that you not convict for murder if you think that Dunn perceived that the teenagers were a threat to him. (Incidentally, Jordan Davis’s murder occurred after Trayvon Martin’s.)

In a society and country where black men are often perceived as threats, this is incredibly problematic. The US has a long history of killing black men for perceived or imagined threats. And the law asks jurors to know the killer’s state of mind, ignoring the racial layers overlaying perceived threats.

The idea that one can take the life of another with impunity because of a perceived threat is appalling to say the least. Add the layer of race and our history of perceiving the Other as a threat and it is unconscionable. (As a woman, I can think of times that I felt threatened by men. It is unreal to me to think that a Stand Your Ground law would have allowed me to kill these men because of the real or perceived threat that they represented to me.)

According to Michael Dunn, he feared for his life. That was the justification for shooting ten bullets into the car parked immediately next to his. But what led to him to fear for his life? Loud music. What kind of music? So-called thug music. Michael Dunn perceived of the teenagers as being thugs. In fact, all were from good homes in the suburbs.

The documentary records enlightening conversations about this characterization and perception of the teenagers and their music. Thug is the new racially charged term in place of the much maligned N word. Dispensing justice based on perceptions is flawed in a society where the presentation of blacks in the media, the only view of blacks that some non-whites have, is a negative one. All blacks are criminals, carry guns, engage in violence. With that erroneous view, all blacks then are threats.

Michael Dunn presented himself as the victim, the aggrieved party, and the one who was being discriminated against. He rejected any idea that he was racist and accused others (the teenagers? Jordan’s parents? the police?) as being racist. His defense rested on the teenagers being a threat. Michael Dunn saw the barrel of a shotgun or a gun. Jordan, he claimed, opened the door and was coming for him.

An expert testified that the trajectory of the bullets into the car made no sense. The bullets would not have entered Jordan’s body the way they did if the door was open.

No weapons were found in the car to corroborate Michael Dunn’s claim that he saw the barrel of a gun. To be fair, the police dropped the ball in the investigation with regard to this point. Understandably, the teenagers fled the scene when the shooting started, but circled around and came back. The defense lawyer argued at the trial that they could have ditched a weapon then; the police did not search the area for weapons.

Things were not looking good for the prosecution. And then things took a turn when Michael Dunn’s (former?) fiancée retook the stand. Michael Dunn claimed that he told his fiancée immediately after the shooting and later that the teenagers had a weapon. The fiancée testified that he did not.

All was not smooth sailing for the jurors. They took a long time to deliberate. On two separate occasions they sent questions to the judge. Does the Stand Your Ground law apply to all four teenagers? Not necessarily. If they can’t agree on all five accounts, does that result in a mistrial for all counts or just the one that they can’t agree on? Just the one.

The jury returned guilty verdicts on all counts except first-degree murder of Jordan. Michael Dunn was going to prison but not for the murder of Jordan Davis. The Stand Your Ground Law saved him on that count.

Two years later another jury on the retrial of the first count of killing Jordan Davis found Michael Dunn guilty. The Stand Your Ground Law ultimately didn’t save him. In fact, he got caught in another judicial reform that has a proportionally greater negative impact on minorities (kind of ironic considering that Dunn is white!): mandatory minimum sentences.

Across the US, judges have been stripped of their abilities to actually hand down situation-appropriate sentences. Communities and states across the country have enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws are often incredibly harsh. According to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the judge in the case was required by law to give Michael Dunn a life sentence without chance of parole for the murder of Jordan Davis. (This is in addition to 90 years for the attempted murder of the three other teenagers.)

3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets not only takes you through a trial and a senseless killing, but forces you to look at the misappropriation of justice based on laws that we have passed in an attempt to be tough on crime. The real victim, I would argue, is justice itself. Our laws more easily allow us to kill others (Stand Your Ground) and to imprison people without any case of rehabilitation (mandatory minimum sentencing). In this case, the latter law may have brought some sense of justice, but a perverted one through automatic sentencing that too often leads to distorted outcomes of plea bargains by innocent people who seek to avoid mandatory minimum sentencing.

Corydon Capitol State Historic Site: Capitol Building

The third building on our tour of the Corydon Capitol State Historic Site was the capitol building itself. This building is a short stroll from the Governor’s Headquarters and the Porter Law Office.

In 1813, the capital of the Indiana Territory moved from Vincennes to Corydon. From 1814 to 1816, stonemason Dennis Pennington, a member of the territorial legislature and later a state senator, built the capitol building in Corydon. The building was supposed to be a temporary state house—the capital was set to move to Indianapolis in ten years—and then a permanent county courthouse (a role it filled until 1927!).

The forty-foot square two-story building consists of a single room downstairs (for the House of Representatives) and two rooms upstairs (one for the Senate and the other for the Supreme Court). Half of the floor on the lower level is comprised of river stones. The walls are double walls of limestone, two and half feet thick with sand in between for insulation. The state tree of poplar was used on the floor and the dual fireplaces. (Poplar, it turns out, is insect resistant.) Having withstood the ages, the building was clearly worth the $3,000 for its initial construction.

The building is pretty darn spartan. A few informational placards exist upstairs, outside of the Senate and Supreme Court chambers. The placards relate some interesting tidbits about census numbers for slaves in the state (190…technically slavery was illegal according to the 1816 constitution) and the State vs. Lasselle case. (In this 1820 case, the court ruled that slavery was illegal in Indiana and freed Polly, who was enslaved by Lasselle.)

Information in the Senate chamber also solved the mystery of Jennings’ resignation as the first governor of Indiana. Jennings’ desire to run for a US Representative seat when he was the Indiana governor precipitated a scandal…and led to the state decision that one cannot be in federal and state office at the same time.

Corydon Capitol State Historic Site: Porter Law Office

After the Governor’s Headquarters, the tour of the Corydon Capitol State Site stopped by the Porter Law Office next door.

The building is actually a replica. Henry P. Coburn built the original two-room structure in 1819 while serving as clerk for the Indiana State Supreme Court. In 1825, Coburn moved with the court to the new capital of Indianapolis.

He rented the building and then eventually sold it to William A. Porter (1800-1884), a probate judge and later a member and speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives and State Senate. (In 1841, Porter bought the building that Governor Hendricks used as his headquarters.)

Porter used the Coburn building as his law office for nearly forty years. This small house includes a front room with a Franklin stove and a back room with beds, where the boarders for Porter’s law school slept.

Presumably dozens of future Indiana lawmakers trained with him here. I haven’t found a complete list of those who studied law with him, but a brief search returned a few names of lawyers who studied with him: James H. Jordan, William Boone, and Walter Q. Gresham—no names that I am familiar with. Yet.

Movie review: Loving (2016)

Loving can be an uplifting movie—or a depressing one—depending on your mood and perspective. It can reflect a triumph over injustice. Or remind you of how much discrimination still exists and is actually getting more blatant again.

The movie follows the Lovings, an interracial couple who marries during an era when interracial marriage was illegal in parts of the US. After Mildred becomes pregnant, Richard drives her to Washington D.C. to get married. They return to Virginia and move in with her family.

The problem is that interracial marriages are illegal in Virginia. Police show up in the middle of the night to drag them off to jail. Richard, as a white man, is free the next day on bail. He is not allowed to post bail for Mildred, but is told to have one of her people bail her out several days later. Pregnant and scared, Mildred sits in jail.

They get a lawyer, who advises them to plead guilty. He can get them off with a plea deal: leave the state and do not return together for twenty-five years, or go to prison. They leave the state and move in with a relative of Mildred’s in Washington D.C. As rural country folk with family in Virginia, they are miserable in Washington D.C. Mildred convinces Richard to return to Virginia; she wants Richard’s mother, a midwife, to deliver her baby.

Although they tried to be surreptitious in their return to Virginia, their return was noticed. They are arrested. Their previous lawyer shows up and takes the blame for them. He tells the judge that he advised them that it was OK to come back to Virginia to have the child. The Lovings are released and warned to never come back.

They spend the next five years miserable in Washington D.C. Two more children come, and the Civil Rights Movement arrives. Mildred is inspired to write Bobby Kennedy about their situation. He recommends their case to the ACLU. An inexperienced ACLU lawyer is handed their case and has some difficulty in convincing them of the best line of attack.

Neither Mildred nor Richard really seem to want the publicity. They just want to be allowed to live their lives as husband and wife in Virginia with their families and in the country that feeds their souls.

Mildred eventually puts her foot down, no longer willing to raise her children in a big city. They move back to Virginia to live in a remote farmhouse. Their legal case moves forward. On the advice of their lawyer, they meet with a photographer from Life magazine for an article and reporters who videotape an interview with Mildred.

The rest is history. Loving vs. Virginia found in their favor. Interracial marriages became legal throughout the US, and the Lovings were free to move back to Virginia, 10 years after they were run out of the state by a local judge. Richard builds the house for Mildred that he said he would back when they were planning to get married. Unfortunately, in 1975 Richard is killed by a drunk driver. Mildred lives in the house the rest of her days, dying in 2008.

How much is myth and how much truth? I do not know. But bless them for their fight to get their legal rights as a married couple recognized. Their battle, and its outcome, had profound effects…on interracial marriage and later same-sex marriage. Hopefully this is one anti-discrimination law that cannot be overturned.