Law Day Thoughts: John Adams' legal legacy -- representing the unpopular

By W. Anthony Jenkins

SBM President

Since 1958 Law Day has been observed in the United States on May 1 as a way to celebrate our commitment to the rule of law.

Many bar associations and legal organizations also use the day to launch Law Week or Law Month activities in an effort to advance the public's understanding of our legal system.

The year's Law Day theme--The Legacy of John Adams, From Boston to Guantanamo--focuses on a risky case the 34-year-old lawyer took in 1770 that subjected him to criticism, jeopardized his legal practice and future political career, and even risked his personal safety.

Despite being a leader in the American colonial resistance to British rule, Adams defended a British officer and eight soldiers, who were charged with firing into a crowd of protesters and killing five civilians.

Colonists dubbed the event the Boston Massacre.

Representing unpopular clients is a necessary role in our legal system and it comes with great risk: Guilt by association is likely and the toll can be heavy. There have been many modern examples of this:

* Stephen Jones, the court-appointed attorney who represented Oklahoma Federal Building bomber Timothy McVeigh, placed his own law practice on hold for more than two years while preparing for the case.

The federal judge who appointed him to the case said, "I hope I have not signed your death warrant."

* Gerald Zerkin, attorney for 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, said, "It took a physical toll ... it is enormously stressful. You're under a microscope."

* Tamar Brickhead, one of the federal defenders for al-Qaeda shoe bomber Richard Reid, was five months pregnant when she was tapped to defend the man who tried to bring down a Miami-bound airplane with a bomb hidden in the sole of his shoe.

"I was definitely apprehensive just about the press coverage ... I had not been in that position," she said.

* William Kuntsler, the famous civil rights defense lawyer of the 1960s and 70s (Freedom Riders, Chicago Seven, Attica Prison), was shunned by his own family for agreeing to defend Omar Abdel-Rahman (the "Blind Sheik") who was accused of masterminding the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

All four lawyers shared a common value with John Adams--no matter how distasteful a person or crime, he or she deserves a defense.

A legal system that affirms the rights for all of its citizens (and those from other countries) but denies the unpopular or indigent those rights is unjust and counterproductive to the ideals of American justice.

Adams was able to separate fact from hysteria and argued that the soldiers were provoked with hurled insults, snowballs, oyster shells and other objects.

He was able to cast doubt that Captain Thomas Preston gave the orders to fire and the jury acquitted the British officer.

In a separate trial of the eight soldiers, Adams argued that the men had fired in self-defense and that the protesters were an unruly mob. The jury acquitted six of the soldiers and found the other two, who had been proven to have fired their weapons, guilty of manslaughter.

Their punishment was thumb branding, a practice that was ended shortly after that.

Adams went on to lead a long and exemplary life. He played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, served as George Washington's vice president and became the young nation's second president.

In his old age, Adams called his defense of the British soldiers in 1770, "one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country."

W. Anthony Jenkins, member and chief diversity officer of Dickinson Wright PLLC is president of the State Bar of Michigan.

Published: Mon, May 9, 2011

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