The Summary of the Boston Massacre Trial
Written by Stephen C. O'Neill,
Supreme Judicial Court Historical Society
"The law shall have its course. I will live and die by the law."
--Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson
March 5, 1770. British Private Hugh White stands sentry duty in the snowy, moonlit street before the Custom House. Moments before, he had sent a local boy running off, bruised and crying, after an exchange of words. Now, facing an angry crowd of civilians, White calls for help. Captain Thomas Preston and seven soldiers respond. Bells ring out nearby from the Old Brick Church, normally the town's fire alarm. On the dark street, people are shouting "Where's the fire?" adding to the confusion and tension. At the Custom House the crowd presses in, began to throw ice and rocks, taunting the soldiers, damning them to fire their muskets, knowing that soldiers are forbidden to shoot without orders from a civil magistrate. Private Hugh Montgomery is knocked down, and someone yells "Fire!" The soldiers shoot into the crowd, killing five and wounding six.
Thomas Hutchinson, the acting governor, rushes from his North End home, past blood-stained snow, into the chambers of the Old State House. Civilian leaders of Boston pressure him to remove the soldiers from the city to prevent further violence. Hutchinson steps onto a balcony to address the large crowd still in the street. "The law shall have its course. I will live and die by the law."
The Boston Massacre resulted from British soldiers of the Fourteenth and the Twenty-ninth Regiments occupying Boston as a police force for two years. They were quartered in private homes and public buildings. Soldiers were even taking extra jobs around the town. Tension and hostilities grew between civilians and soldiers until it finally erupted on the night of the Massacre.
The trials for the Captain and for the eight enlisted men, two of the longest trials in Colonial history, are a landmark in American legal history. It was the first time a judge used the phrase "reasonable doubt." The hearsay testimony of Massacre victim Patrick Carr was allowed in court because it was given on his deathbed. And a Medieval relic, the Benefit of Clergy, was used by two soldiers found guilty of manslaughter to escape the death penalty.
The accused soldiers of the Twenty-ninth Regiment
Captain Thomas Preston
Corporal William Wemms
The Superior Court of Judicature
The British soldiers were tried before the Superior Court of Judicature, the highest court in Massachusetts. As English subjects, they had a right to a fair trial by jury and competent defense counsel. Loyalists wanted the soldiers pardoned, but were prosecuting in the King's name. Patriots wanted the soldiers found guilty, but also wanted to show Boston as fair.
"Queen Street Courthouse, built 1769. Conjectural Plan."
Judges of the Superior Court of Judicature
Chief Justice Benjamin Lynde, Jr., described as a "nervous" man, he was a political moderate who served less than three years as chief justice.
Justice Edmund Trowbridge, a meticulous and learned judge, he was responsible for suggesting the use of the Benefit of Clergy during the trials. He became a reluctant Patriot during the Revolution.
Justice John Cushing, another political moderate, he retired the following year after serving twenty-four years on the bench.
Justice Peter Oliver, a fierce and outspoken loyalist, he became chief justice after Lynde, only to be impeached by the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He was exiled with other Loyalists in 1776.
Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson was chief justice of the Superior Court, but declined to preside at the trials. Benjamin Lynde, Jr. of Salem became the acting chief justice. Lynde tried to resign his position twice before the trials began. He and the remaining three justices of the court presided at the trials in full bottomed wigs and scarlet robes for the capital crime of murder.
Indictments were drawn up in the weeks following the Massacre by Attorney General Jonathan Sewall. Hutchinson pressured Lynde to delay the date for the trials as long as possible, hoping the agitation in Boston would die down. In the meantime, Attorney General Sewall stepped away from his responsibility and refused to prosecute the soldiers.
Counsel for the Prosecution
Samuel Quincy, a Loyalist and the Solicitor General for the colony, was appointed as special prosecutor for the trials. Samuel was the handsome and urbane older brother of defense lawyer Josiah Quincy Jr. Samuel Quincy left Massachusetts with the British in 1776 and died in exile in England in 1789.
Robert Treat Paine, a Patriot and lawyer from Taunton, Massachusetts, was asked by the town of Boston to prosecute the soldiers. Paine was a prominent attorney who was later elected to the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence. He also became the first Attorney General for Massachusetts and a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.