Wednesday, May 7, 2014


Today many trial lawyers quake in their boots at the prospect of actually having to try a case to a jury. I have seen a lot of so-called trial lawyers go for years without ever getting before a jury. Abraham Lincoln was not such a lawyer. Let’s follow him through a manslaughter case that he tried in 1845 to see what I mean.

On February 25, 1845, James Dorman went to Ellen Cox’s home and tried to break in. Cox, who was pregnant, resisted his attempt and he finally left without getting into her house. Cox became ill as a result of her struggle with Dorman, sickened, and finally died on March 2, 1845. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing else about the facts of this case.

On March 26, 1845, James McDougall, the Attorney General for the state of Illinois, indicted Dorman for manslaughter. On the very day of Dorman’s indictment, Abraham Lincoln appeared for him and moved for a change of venue. After hearing argument on the motion, the judge granted it and changed venue to Menard County.

Nowadays that would be about all you would expect of a lawyer for a day in court, but Lincoln was not afraid of work. Immediately after getting the change of venue for his client, Lincoln tried a larceny case, People v. Sherwood Owens. The jury found Owens not guilty, and Lincoln received a $25 fee. The day had grown long by this time, and the trial of another of Lincoln’s cases was put off until the next day. On March 27, Lincoln defended Ivy White on another charge of larceny, and the jury again acquitted. He got a $30 fee for this case.

On June 11, 1845, James Dorman’s manslaughter case came on for trial before the Menard County Circuit Court, and Lincoln was again able to achieve a jury verdict of not guilty. Lincoln earned $500 for his successful defense of Dorman.

As soon as the Dorman case was over, Lincoln began the trial of a civil case. James Busher had accused Robert Scott of stealing $1.30 worth of tools and the case had been dismissed. Scott sued Busher for malicious prosecution, and Lincoln defended Busher.

While Lincoln was busy trying Scott v. Busher, the state’s attorney was indicting another client of Lincoln’s, Marvin Pond, for the crime of harboring a fugitive slave. While the jury was out deliberating on its verdict in the Busher case, the state’s attorney arraigned Pond, and Lincoln entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf. When the jury returned with its verdict in the Busher case, Lincoln’s string of wins was snapped. They found Busher guilty and awarded Scott $275 in damages.

Lincoln later achieved some success in his defense of Busher. He moved for and obtained a new trial, and the case settled. Lincoln earned $20. The Pond case finally came up for trial in November of 1845, and Lincoln again obtained a jury verdict of not guilty. He charged Pond $5 attorney’s fees.

As you can see, Lincoln was not afraid to try a case, and he tried cases in rapid succession. He also seems to have had a great deal of success in persuading juries to acquit his clients. Anyone charged with a crime in Illinois should have been glad to have Lincoln take his case.

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