Tuesday, April 29, 2014


According to conventional wisdom, Abraham Lincoln was not a very good criminal defense attorney. They say he didn’t take many cases, and of those cases he “lost” a lot of murder cases. Most of his “losses” came when his client was convicted of the lesser offense of manslaughter. At that time the maximum penalty for manslaughter was eight years and the minimum penalty for murder was hanging. You decide whether he “lost” those cases where his clients escaped the gallows.

The reason Lincoln didn’t try more criminal cases is easy to determine. Most crimes are committed by those who are unable to afford a lawyer, that’s why we have a public defender system today. Lincoln practiced law to make a living, and he seldom took non-paying cases.

Based on my research, I think Lincoln was a very good criminal defense attorney, and he showed his talent early in his career. He had not been practicing law for a year when he became associated in a murder case against a politician by the name of Henry B. Truett. He was not lead counsel in the case (you wouldn’t expect a rookie to be lead counsel in a murder case), but he played a pivotal role in the defense of the case. Here’s how it happened.

If you think politics is rough in this day and age, you should have seen antebellum Illinois. Truett had just been appointed to public office and some of his enemies got together a petition to have him removed. Truett thought he knew who wrote the petition, and he wasn’t going to stand for it. When he found the offender sitting in the lobby of a hotel reading a newspaper, he left the lobby and got a handgun. He returned to the lobby, cursed the offender, and pulled his handgun. The victim picked up a chair to use as a shield and Truett shot him in the gut. The victim languished for several days before giving a dying declaration and then expiring. The only question in the public mind was “When is the hanging going to be?”

Lincoln’s senior partner and mentor, Stephen T. Logan, was lead counsel and did most of the heavy lifting, but when it came time to give the final argument, Logan asked Lincoln to deliver it. There are a lot of lawyers who swear by final argument as the most important part of the trial, and here was Logan turning that important phase of the trial over to a young lawyer who had never tried a murder case. I don’t agree that the final argument is most important part of the case, but as things stood in the Truett case, it was supremely important.

Logan would later say that Lincoln gave an excellent final argument. If you are inclined to look at the results before you judge the quality of a performance, you will have to give Lincoln an A+. The jury acquitted. The citizenry was mystified as to how a jury could possibly acquit. Truett lost his appointment, and ever after lived under a cloud of suspicion that he got away with murder.
Oh, by the way, Lincoln's opponent in his first murder case happened to be a lawyer by the name of Stephen A. Douglas.


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