Revisiting the Trial of the (18th) Century

By Sarah Hill

A crucial moment in the march toward American independence will be brought to life when Baylor history and law students revisit the trial following the infamous Boston Massacre, which is marking its 250th anniversary this year.

On March 5, students from Baylor Law School and from an undergraduate history class will take part in a mock trial based on the Boston Massacre trial of 1770. The mock trial will take place from 3-5 p.m. in Bennett Auditorium, and is free and open to the public. Seating is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Historical recap

If you don’t remember the story of the Boston Massacre from your American history class, let’s take a brief look back at the facts. Years before the Revolutionary War officially began in 1776, tensions between the American colonists and occupying British soldiers were already high and rising. Fights and protests often broke out on occasion, but none had yet ended as violently as did what came to be called the Boston Massacre.

On March 5, 1770, some American colonists in Boston began taunting and harassing the British soldiers who were standing guard in their city.

“The bare facts are that eight British soldiers fired on a crowd of colonials. Five men were killed, and several were wounded,” said Dr. Julie Sweet, professor of history. “That’s what happened, but what precipitated that event and who was guilty of causing this situation in the first place is what our students are trying to figure out –– what led up to that, and what actually happened that night.”

Sweet, who is teaching a class this semester called “The Boston Massacre Trials,” said the shootings were the first instance of bloodshed on a large scale between British soldiers and colonists, which is why the event was so monumental. Because men died, the British soldiers were charged with murder.

Gerald Powell, the Abner V. McCall Professor of Evidence at Baylor Law School, has his students working with those of Sweet’s to put on the retrial. He said the massacre was the result of escalating tension in Boston.

“In the years leading up to 1770 the Crown troops were a police force more than anything else,” Powell said. “There was friction between the soldiers and the British subjects living in Boston, which was exacerbated by the fact that many of these soldiers were quartered by the locals, who were forced to take them into their homes and feed them.”

Powell said the tension was only made worse by the fact that many of the soldiers had part-time jobs working for local industries. Bostonians viewed them as robbers –– taking jobs from locals.

Controversial trials

John Adams

Seven months after the massacre, the trials began. Many colonists were surprised to find out that the attorney who would be defending the accused British soldiers and trying to save them from a death penalty was a well-known attorney from Massachusetts, John Adams, who was then in his mid-thirties. Adams would go on to play a key role in the American Revolution and eventually become the second U.S. President.

Powell puts Adam’s controversial decision into perspective.

“This put Adams in an extraordinary position. If he took the case, he would be going against his friends and neighbors who were very upset at the British soldiers,” Powell said. “But, at great personal risk and sacrifice, he defended the soldiers despite their unpopularity. Lawyers today view his representation of them as one of the most noble and honorable things a lawyer can do.”

Powell said that in the eyes of Adams, giving the British soldiers the death penalty would not only be unjust, but would also be a reason for the British to retaliate and potentially call for a war. Due to the efforts of Adams, all of the British soldiers except two were acquitted. Those two were charged with manslaughter, convicted, and then branded on their thumbs as first offenders.

The repercussions of the trials had an enormous impact on America’s creation and legal system.

“So many of the rules and laws we have in the constitution came out of this case,” said Ed Nelson, director of marketing and communications at Baylor Law School. “The right to legal representation in our Seventh Amendment, for example. All because of this idea that everyone, no matter what, deserves to be tried by a jury of peers. And we, Americans, will never, ever, ever be required to quarter soldiers in our homes because that is now unconstitutional.”

Powell said the Boston Massacre trials are often mentioned as being an important part of America’s road to revolution –– not only because tensions escalated quickly afterward, but because the ancient right of trial by jury was threatened by Parliament’s resort to non-jury trials in vice admiralty courts to enforce British trade laws. He said that people in those days viewed trial by jury as a guardian against an oppressive government and a guarantee of their liberty.

Sweet said that history repeats itself and is a cause for reflection.

“Historians are looking back and saying, ‘you know, this has happened elsewhere at other times.’ Protestors exist throughout history. It’s what makes it relevant. Everyone can learn from history,” Sweet said.

Reenacting history

To commemorate the Boston Massacre’s 250th anniversary on March 5, faculty members in the Department of History in the College of Arts & Sciences and Baylor Law School decided to partner in an interdisciplinary mock trial of the two British soldiers accused of manslaughter in 1770 who were found guilty. Powell and Sweet, who have worked together in the past, successfully made the mock trial a reality.

“I’ve known Dr. Sweet for some time,” Powell said. “I respect her tremendous knowledge of American history, particularly colonial American history and Revolutionary War history. She’s a brilliant scholar.”

At the same time, Sweet is excited about the chance for her department to work together with Powell and his immense knowledge of the law to intermingle disciplines. Baylor history students from Sweet’s undergraduate class, “The Boston Massacre Trials,” will act as witnesses in the trial.

“My students have to do all the research on their characters, who are actual people,” Sweet said. “We have over 100 depositions of people who were there that night.”

Once the students portraying witnesses write their statements, they will be cross-examined by attorneys who will put together cases. Serving as attorneys will be volunteer third-year law students from Baylor Law School’s practice court.

“Professor Powell is recruiting some of his top students to serve as the prosecutors and the defense attorneys,” Sweet said.

In addition to the student witnesses and attorneys, the trial will include a jury of Baylor history students and a panel of five judges, a few of whom will be real judges.

A different ending?

What will make this event different from a simple reenactment of the original trial is the element of uncertainty that will be introduced, since the mock trial jurors will not be bound to come to the same conclusion as the jury did in 1770. Instead, the jury will be free to choose whatever verdict they feel is justified by the arguments and historical evidence presented in court.

“It’s going to be totally improvised,” Sweet said. “We’re using all of the evidence and all of the information from the trial, but what actually happens after we perform it –– that’s up to the jury to decide. Everything’s on the table.”

Sweet and Powell agree there is a real chance that the final verdict will change in the retrial. Because of the 250-year gap and the amount of change American government has seen in that amount of time, Powell said the retrial will be done using 1770 British common law from the time. The suspense will be real, and the audience could experience just as much excitement as those on stage.

For more information, visit the Boston Massacre Trials Reenactment information page.

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