Although we remember the recent tragedy involving the Boston Marathon, the city was the site of another case, one in which the National Archives has captioned in a lithograph as “the bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, on Mar. 5, 1770.” Eight British soldiers stood trial for killing five civilians and wounding six others by firing on a crowd in the so-called “Boston Massacre.”
Five years before the American Revolution and nearly 30 years before he served as our nation’s second president, John Adams, as a lawyer in private practice , was the defense attorney for the soldiers. Although emotions ran high due to the tension between the colonists and British, the government was insistent on a fair trial for the accused.
Fundamental to a fair trial was the idea that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. To hold the government to proving its case ensures that the innocent are protected, potentially allowing some guilty to go free; rather than ensuring the guilty are punished, with some of those who are innocent unjustly convicted. As Benjamin Franklin expressed the thought, “it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer”.
Adams’ law practice suffered from his defense of the British soldiers, but later he was to remark that despite the anxiety he suffered it was “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.” The jury acquitted six of those accused and two were convicted of manslaughter, a verdict Adams thought “exactly right.”
The attorney who decides to defend the surviving brother accused of bombing the 2013 Boston Marathon may face misunderstanding and even hostility. But he or she will be in the company of John Adams in upholding a principle that protects us all.