The Patron Saint of American Criminal Defense Attorneys

By October 16, 2019May 8th, 2020No Comments

We’re launching a new series of blogs today, a series that will be all about stories. Stories of crimes, prosecutions, and defenses. We think it’s a better way to describe what, how, and why we do what we do every day. We realize we’re in the news quite a bit and we realize that quick videos and short newspaper stories really don’t say much beyond the immediate headline.

So, stories.

We’ve been thinking for awhile about how to start. What story – and there are hundreds of them to choose from – should we start with? A hard choice, really, to set the tone for an entire series of posts. We debated for a bit until it finally hit us to start from the beginning. Not our beginnings as a firm, but the very beginning – of criminal defense practice in the United States.

That, we think, is John Adams. Not John Adams the envoy to France, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, second President of the United States, crotchety old guy, star of the HBO mini-series.

We’re talking about John Adams the lawyer in the decade before the Revolution. The John Adams who, in 1768, successfully defended Samuel Quinn on a capital rape charge in Worchester, Massachusetts. The courts in Massachusetts in the Eighteenth Century were hardly know for fairness or compassion so it’s not surprising that Quinn would later write “God bless Mr. Adams. God bless his Soul I am not to be hanged, and I don’t care what else they do to me.”

John Adams had a pretty solid grasp of the need for attorneys to advertise, this quote survives because Adam’s cited it, often.

The case that makes John Adams the patron saint of American criminal defense attorneys is, you’ve probably already guessed, the Boston Massacre.

Quick background: on March 5, 1770 an argument over a debt between a British sentry and a wigmaker’s apprentice in front of the Boston Custom House escalated until a mob surrounded the small group of British soldiers who came to their comrades’ aid. Words were viciously exchanged along with snowballs, ice, spit, stones. At some point the soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five and wounding six.

The British officer, Captain Thomas Preston, and his eight men were arrested early the next morning. On March 27th they were indicted on murder charges.

By the time of the indictments, Samuel Adams, the firebrand revolutionary (and, yes, brewer) had already labeled the incident The Boston Massacre. Worse for the defendants, Paul Revere published a woodcut – reproduced everywhere in a 1770s version of going viral – that was as wildly inaccurate as it was lurid. The kind of image no potential juror was ever likely to forget.

In 1770, John Adams was hardly a Loyalist. He wasn’t quite a revolutionary yet, but he very much distrusted the British Crown and most of their American policies. Most of his relatives – especially his cousin Sam – and friends were members of the Sons of Liberty. John was also about to run for office, and, of course, he was building a successful law practice, very much needed to support Abigail and four children under age 5.

Yet, when asked, he agreed to represent Captain Preston and his men. The decision “procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough.” His co-counsel was Josiah Quincy Jr. a fire-breathing revolutionary and founding member of the Sons of Liberty,

Quincy’s father nicely summed Boston’s feelings about the defense in a letter just before the trial, “I am under great affliction, at hearing the bitterest reproaches uttered against you, for having become an advocate for those criminals who are charged with the murder of their fellow-citizens. Good God! Is it possible?”

Adams and Quincy risked their legal careers and futures in Boston to represent British soldiers that virtually everyone in the city, themselves very much included, believed had no business being there in the first place.

Why? To prove to the world – and most especially Great Britain – that in the American Colonies

. . . [Defensive] Council ought to be the very last thing that an accused Person should want in a free Country. That the Bar ought in my opinion to be independent and impartial at all Times And in every Circumstance. And that Persons whose Lives were at Stake ought to have the Council they preferred: But he must be sensible this would be as important a Cause as ever was tried in any Court or Country of the World: and that every Lawyer must hold himself responsible not only to his Country, but to the highest and most infallible of all Trybunals for the Part he should Act.

Captain Preston and all but two of his men were acquitted. The other two were convicted of manslaughter, their thumbs were branded with a ‘M.’

There’s a story, probably apocryphal (but we chose to believe it) that after the soldiers were acquitted an acquaintance ran up to the defense table to congratulate Adams but stopped short when he saw his unhappy face.

“Why aren’t you pleased, John?” He asked, “Surely they are innocent of the charges.”

“They are,” Adams replied, “but they are still guilty of being British soldiers.”

For us at Smith Blythe P.C., that cements Adams’ place as the patron saint of criminal defense attorneys.

He found his clients odious; it didn’t matter one bit. Every day. horrible people are accused of horrible crimes they didn’t commit, and good people are accused of horrible crimes they did commit. None of that should ever enter into a defense attorney’s representation.

Author Shannon Smith

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Michigan Criminal Sexual conduct Lawyer