VOICES — 'Could the Lessons of John Adams Defuse the Tinderbox of Today's High-Profile Trials?'

Updated: Nov 18

(Editor’s Note — As America awaits the verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, as well as the forthcoming trial of those charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, writer Dan Hawrylczak reflects upon the lessons learned by John Adams’ commitment to justice and fair trials. Is there something we can learn at this pivotal time from our nation’s second president and co-author of the Declaration of Independence? 1120 Press is proud to bring you Dan’s thought-provoking words. )

John Adams: American Revolutionary, diplomat, first vice president of the United States, and co-author of the Declaration of Independence.


Defense attorney, too.


On March 5, 1770, three people were killed and eight others injured when a hostile mob was fired upon by the despised British Redcoats — aka “Lobster Backs.”


Adams — despite his commitment to the cause of independence, at great risk to his family and career, and despite being in mourning over the loss of a child — agreed to defend the British officer in question and the men he commanded.


Why?


He believed simply that everyone deserved a fair trial.


In a mob situation, things are often not as they seem. Events unfold quickly. As born out in the trials of the “Lobster Backs,” witnesses have unreliable observations and memories. The narrative becomes twisted to meet the desires of various groups.


Leading up to and throughout the two trials in which Adams argued for the defense there was a media frenzy as Loyalists and Patriots attempted to blame the other for the events which unfolded. Yet, despite everything, Adams secured the acquittal of the officer because his men acted without his command. As for the enlisted men, he argued they acted in self-defense. Six of the soldiers received a verdict of not guilty. Two others were found guilty of manslaughter, a much lesser charge than the initial murder charge they faced.


In spite of the infamy wrought upon Adams because of his defense of these men, his dedication to his ideals ultimately lead to him becoming a co-author of the Declaration of Independence, a diplomat, the first Vice President of the United States, and ultimately the second president of the United States.


As we watch the evidence unfold, and listen to the judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys in today's high-profile trials of Kyle Rittenhouse and those charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, we must put aside our own prejudices and hope that — despite the overwhelming pressure of today's divided America — that all execute their duties in a manner in which John Adams would approve.


As Adams said:


“It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished.


But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, 'whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,' and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.”