United States President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.
Booth was tracked to Virginia and shot 12 days later, killed by a Union soldier. But what if he survived and went on trial for the murder of the president?
The University of Wyoming College of Law is going to find out during its second annual Spence Law Firm Historical Trial Production at 6 p.m. Monday in the College of Law Davis and Cannon Natural Resources Law Moot Court.
“We look for an historical event that happened in real life but did not result in a trial,” said Steve Easton, professor of law.
“This year, we had John Wilkes Booth survive and go to trial.”
The event will be part trial, part theatrics — everyone involved will be in full period dress, provided by the department of theater and dance. Witnesses will give true accounts of what they saw or about their relationship with Booth.
“It’s not a scripted event — it’s a real trial,” Easton said.
Two sets of trial attorneys and students will lead both the prosecution and the defense, with Easton and law student Emily Williams trying to prove Booth guilty.
“We’ve been meeting pretty regularly to go over our trial strategy,” Williams said. “It’s a pretty methodical process, organizing our witnesses and keeping in mind the final result.”
Both sides have an in-depth trial file — about 200 pages of historical newspaper articles, statements and other information about the assassination — with which to formulate court strategies. For Williams and Macrina Sharpe, the student on defense, this could be the most important part of the project.
“It has taught me a tremendous amount about what it means to be a good trial attorney,” she said. “It’s really the best possible learning experience, working with a trial attorney.”
Sharpe is working with Kent Spence, a Jackson attorney whose firm is co-sponsoring the event. The two have decided on an insanity defense based on the information they’ve seen, and Sharpe is excited to put it to use.
“It’s easy to prosecute someone who shot the president,” she said. “It’s much more difficult to defend. But everyone deserves a fair trial.”
Both teams have collaborated for months perfecting their various courtroom strategies partially centered on four key witnesses, Easton said.
“David Herold was one of Booth’s co-conspirators,” he said. “He and Booth spent the 12 days after the shooting on the lamb together. (Clara Harris) was in the box with the Lincolns as their guest and will testify to things that happened inside the box.”
“Laura Keene was the star of the play ‘Our American Cousin,’ which was being produced at Ford’s Theater that night. She observed things inside the theater that night,” Easton continued.
John Mathews, another actor in that night’s performance, will be the final witness for the prosecution and is important as both an observer of the events and his personal experiences with Booth.
“Booth, that day, had given Mathews a letter, and he said to Mathews, ‘If you don’t see me tomorrow morning, please take this letter to a (Washington, D.C., newspaper called) the National Intelligencer,’” Easton said. “It’s basically Booth’s explanation of his actions, but Mathews actually ended up burning the letter.”
Booth, played by law student Nathan Ridgway, could also be a witness, but is not certain if he will testify, just like in a contemporary trial.
“Booth is the possible defense witness, but, just like in real trials, he has the right not to testify if he doesn’t want to,” Easton said. “So, we don’t know if he actually will testify. Booth and his lawyers will decide that.”
If this trial actually occurred, Easton said it would take at least a week, likely more, so a few changes were needed to the process to ensure it can be finished in hours rather than days.
“In order to make the case try-able in one night — for example, Laura Keene will testify about some things that other people observed in the theater,” he said. “We don’t change history, but we sort of expand her knowledge so that we don’t have to call six people.”
Modern law practices are also integrated in the trial rather than basing the trial around 1865 standards.
While the event should be entertaining, it can also be educational in both an historic and judicial sense.
“If you’re looking for entertainment, you’re going to find it in this John Wilkes Booth trial,” Williams said. “I think most people probably look at the legal process as something they want to avoid. But, for most of us, there’s going to be a point where we’ll be involved in the legal arena, whether it’s as a juror or a party in a civil matter, and attending this trial is a real opportunity for people to come and be exposed in a non-threatening way.”
If you go…
What: Historical trial of John Wilkes Booth for the Spence Law Firm Historical Trial Production
When: 6 p.m. Monday
Where: University of Wyoming College of Law Davis and Cannon Natural Resources Law Moot Court
How much: Free
More info: 766-6562