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Book Review: Lincoln’s Last Trial

The Frey Law Firm, LLC Team
Dan Abrams

Lincoln’s Last Trial – The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency – By Dan Abrams & David Fisher

Abraham Lincoln is remembered for many things, most notably his presidency, the civil war, and the abolition of slavery. What many may not realize is that Lincoln was an active and seasoned attorney who handled a wide range of cases involving everything from simple civil contract disputes, to complex corporate railroad litigation. It may come as a surprise to learn that Lincoln also served as an attorney for those accused of criminal conduct. Abraham Lincoln was a criminal defense lawyer.In Lincoln’sLastTrial,wefindLincolnfighting forayoungmanaccusedofmurder.

Abraham Lincoln – Criminal Defense Lawyer

Throughout his career Lincoln represented clients charged with a wide range of criminal offenses, including forgeries, rape, attempted murder, murder, and everything in between. Lincoln’s Last Trial takes the reader back to Springfield, Illinois in 1859 and the murder case against Quinn “Peachy” Harrison.

The Facts

Lincoln was retained to represent Mr. Harrison, a young man charged with the murder of another young man, Greek Crafton. It was alleged that Harrison brutally slashed Crafton with a hunting knife during an altercation with Crafton and his brother, while within a small Springfield general store. Crafton had a deep cut in his stomach that went from one side of his body to the other. The wound was gruesome and Crafton’s bowels had to be pushed back into place by a doctor. He was on his death bed in agonizing pain for three days before passing. Harrison was arrested and charged with murder. The prosecution claimed that the act was premeditated and planned by Crafton in advance. If convicted, the sentence was the death penalty, by way of a public execution (hanging). Harrison’s family retained Lincoln to represent him.

The Defense

Harrison claimed he acted in self-defense. He alleged that Crafton and his brother had threatened him on a previous date and that they viciously attacked him within the store. Ultimately, the case would be decided by way of a jury trial with Abraham Lincoln for the defense.

Criminal Procedure

The book is a true story that is primarily told by way of a court reporter’s transcript that was produced during the trial. It is fascinating to observe the many similarities between a modern day criminal case and a criminal case from 1859.

In many respects, the procedures in 1859 were quite similar to those employed today. There was a jury trial with a twelve person panel; over one hundred people were questioned during voir dire, or jury selection; there was a claim of self-defense; there was litigation and pre-trial hearings on issues involving hearsay; there were alleged statements made while on a deathbed; and many other evidentiary issues. However, there were many noteable differences as well. For instance, the law in Illinois at the time restricted those serving on a jury to naturalized white males who were property owning citizens.

Over seventy-five witnesses were subpoenaed and most testified at some point during the pre-trial hearings and trial proceedings. The trial itself carried with it all of the suspense you would expect from a murder case that rocked a very small and tight-knit community, where everyone knew everyone else.

The case involved eyewitness testimony, credibility contests, expert testimony from a doctor, dying declarations, tactical maneuvers by the prosecution and defense, questions from the jury and more.

Lincoln Memorial
The Lincoln Memorial

Abraham Lincoln – Criminal Defense Lawyer

Lincoln’s skill as a trial attorney is exhibited throughout the book. From his storytelling technique, to the manner with which he framed his arguments, it is apparent that he had an extremely persuasive and impactful approach. The book provides anecdotal looks into other cases Lincoln handled, including an interesting story about a women he represented who was charged with the murder of her husband. The book details her apparent escape as a fugitive from justice following her consultation with Lincoln, and some of the rumors that followed. These interludes, as well as anecdotes regarding Lincoln’s law partners and his law office (he didn’t lock the doors, panes of glass were missing, and the office was so cluttered that there was dirt and plants growing in the corner), make for an interesting read.

The book provides profound insight into the legal system and the right to a trial by jury. This trial was late in Lincoln’s career as an attorney and shortly before his nomination as a presidential candidate by the Republican Party in 1860. Like President John Adams before him, one of our nation’s greatest leaders served as a criminal defense lawyer for those accused of the most heinous of crimes.

This murder case was not a singular event for Lincoln. He appeared in approximately twenty-seven murder cases throughout his career as an attorney. In addition to representing the accused in cases, he also served as a prosecutor in others. The book discusses how he was once offered two-hundred dollars to represent a City and prosecute a case against alleged murder suspects. He turned down the offer and instead represented one of the accused for a quarter of that amount.

The role of the criminal defense attorney is as vital to our functioning system of justice as any other role within the system. In order to get the most accurate results, it is imperative that the accused have not just adequate representation, but a skilled attorney who has the time, resource and experience to defend his or her client against the government’s allegations. When prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and juries all perform their roles to the best of their abilities and within the bounds of the law, tragic errors are generally minimized, the truth can be determined, and justice can be secured.

Lincoln’s Last Trial is a great read for those interested in the roots of our criminal justice system, American history, Abraham Lincoln and the law.

Reviewed by Attorney Ron Frey

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