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: Dial M for Murder (1954)

No such thing as the perfect murder. So said Margot’s lover in Dial M for Murder. He happens to be an author of detective novels.

Mark was responding to a question by Margot’s husband Tony. Tony was pondering the perfect murder. This wasn’t academic. Tony was planning on murdering his wife Margot.

Or rather have her murdered.

But, as Mark said, there are only perfect murders on paper. Things never go as planned. And they certainly didn’t for Tony.

Tony had found out about Mark and Margot’s affair. But that wasn’t the motivation for murder. The real motivation was money. Margot came from money. Tony was accustomed to living off of it. If Margot were to leave, so goes any money Tony lives on. But if Margot dies, as beneficiary to her will, he would be left with plenty to live on for the rest of his days.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder is masterfully done. At first I wondered at a bit of the acting. But either it became polished as the movie went on or I became enchanted with the plot. The audience is in the know the entire time.

We watch as Tony explains his plan to the guy he hires to kill Margot. Then we watch as the plot goes terribly awry and Tony improvises and alters the story, landing Margot on death row for killing the would-be murderer.

Mark would do anything for Margot, including trying to convince Tony to tell the police a story that would save her life—that Tony plotted her murder (after all, he would go to prison for only a few years for hiring someone to murder his wife—a small price to pay to save his wife from death).

Eerily, the story that Mark concocts is almost the exact plot that Tony had hatched. In the end, Tony is done in by a simple detail—the key that the killer was supposed to leave under the carpeting on the front stairs.

It was the perfect murder—on paper.

Podcast review: Serial, season one (2014)

I recently heard coworkers talking about this series of podcasts. And then I heard the host and producer interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air. I was intrigued and thought about dipping my toe in to see how it was.

I ended up plunging in head-first. The real-life story is that engrossing.

Serial is a series of 12 podcasts that debuted October 2014 as a spin-off from This American Life. The host, Sarah Koenig, as an investigative journalist, looks into the 1999 strangulation of a high school student and the subsequent incarceration of the newly deceased’s ex-boyfriend.

Sarah has ongoing telephone conversations with Adnan Syed from his prison. She reenacts the events of the day, walking through the timeline presented in court. She interviews different people: Adnan, Jay (the sole witness), jurors, lawyers, detectives, and those that knew Hae Min Lin (the deceased). She tracks down any item in the records that wasn’t followed up on or that seems suspicious, such as girl who could corroborate Adnan’s alibi or the lack of DNA testing done.

Through her investigation, we learn things about the judicial system and how police investigations are carried out. For example, Sarah tests the hypothesis that memory is reliable, which is a bit shocking when you consider how much stock we place on witness accounts and their memories in criminal investigations, at trials, and in life in general.

Sarah also discusses her feelings, the ups and down, the roller coaster she is on. One minute she thinks Adnan is innocent, and then something suggests that there is no way that he is innocent, and then something else suggests that there is no way that he committed the murder. And on and on.

And she discusses her perspectives on Adnan’s reactions and feelings. Fifteen years after the conviction, the wounds for him are being reopened for him to suffer through again.

It is disconcerting to consider the amount of human error in legal judgments. And what Sarah is investigating and discussing is not a hypothetical. It is a real case with a dead high school woman and a convicted man behind bars for life. Swirling around them are numerous lives that were affected to varying degrees…from the friends, to the parents of Hae, to the guy who helped bury Hae’s body.

Both the interview with Terri Gross and the podcast series Serial are well worth a listen. The first season of Serial is over and you can binge listen to all 12 episodes (which is what I did). 2015 brings a new season…and a new story.