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Murder at Harvard | Article

The Webster Charge

Judge Lemuel Shaw | Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities

The trial of John Webster was best known in 1850 for its Boston Brahmin ties and its gruesome nature. By means of his charge to the jury, however, Judge Lemuel Shaw ensured that the trial would hold a place in legal history. The trial was the first in which dental evidence was used, and one of the first to use forensics at all. But it is Shaw's instructions to the jury, known as the Webster Charge, that are still quoted in courtrooms today. At the time of the trial many citizens thought Shaw's words were far too argumentative for a judge. In his jury instructions on the evening of March 30, 1850, Judge Shaw defined murder, manslaughter, alibi, circumstantial evidence and reasonable doubt.

Differentiating Between Murder and Manslaughter
Judge Shaw defined murder as killing with "malice aforethought," whether expressed or implied, and manslaughter as killing without malice, as "through the violence of sudden passion, occasioned by some provocation." He told the jury that words only would not constitute provocation, and that in this case, "There is some evidence of angry feelings. But angry words are not sufficient."

Boston Public Library

Was It Really Parkman They Saw?
One of the main points of Webster's defense was his alibi, the testimony of several witnesses who claimed to have seen Dr. George Parkman hours after the time Webster allegedly murdered him. ("Alibi" comes from the Latin word for "elsewhere.") Judge Shaw had something to say about this idea, too. He spoke about the difficulty of proving alibi and stated many reasons witnesses could be mistaken, including dimness of the light, inconsistency in their timepieces, and ease of "contrivance" in creating the appearance of being in a certain place at a certain time.

Circumstantial Evidence
Many 1850 critics of the Parkman murder trial argued that Webster couldn't fairly be convicted because all of the evidence was circumstantial, and guilt could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Other people also had implicating circumstances, such as access to Webster's laboratory. Judge Shaw made a case for the legitimacy of circumstantial evidence. He reasoned, "It would be injurious to the best interests of society to have it so ordered that circumstantial proof cannot avail. If it were necessary always to have positive evidence, how many of the acts committed in the community... would go entirely unpunished?"

Absolute Certainty Required
It is Judge Shaw's explanation of reasonable doubt that is most historically definitive. In 1850, the standard in murder cases was proof "to an absolute certainty" that the dead body was that of the victim, or absolute proof of corpus delicti. The Webster case was one of the first capital cases to be won without absolute evidence that the victim had been murdered. It could not be established that the bones discovered were Parkman's. Judge Shaw opened the door for the jury to convict anyway by changing the standard. He instructed them that they need only prove corpus delicti "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
In 1971 Robert Sullivan wrote a modern-day legal analysis of the Webster trial, called The Disappearance of Dr. Parkman. He argued that John Webster did not get a fair trial, nor did many nineteenth-century defendants, because they were not sufficiently protected in court. Sullivan also made the case that Judge Shaw overstepped his bounds in his charge to the jury. Concerning corpus delicti, Sullivan wrote:

When one says, for example, that there is some question about the corpus delicti, he is asking: "Did the crime actually take place at all?" ... The leading authorities upon the law of criminal evidence in 1850 made it quite clear that the fact of the corpus delicti, or the commission of the homicide, had to be proven by direct evidence to an absolute certainty, or beyond the least doubt. After this had been established absolutely, then the burden of proof was on the prosecution to show that the defendant had committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt... In his charge, however, Shaw set a new standard for the degree of proof required to show the commission of the homicide. He stated that the corpus delicti was to be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" only... He further instructed the jury that the corpus delicti could be established beyond a reasonable doubt by circumstantial evidence alone.

What if Webster Were Tried Today?
Judge Shaw made his mark on legal history, and on his jury. They found Webster guilty in a matter of hours. It is impossible to know whether Webster would have been convicted today. He would likely not receive the death penalty; it is now illegal in Massachusetts, and the burden of proof for capital punishment in other courtrooms would likely not have been met by the circumstantial evidence offered against Webster.

A Weak Defense
It is possible Webster's case today could even be thrown out on a technicality. The police who arrested Webster and took him to jail did not tell him he was arrested, but let him believe he was a witness. If the trial occurred today, Sullivan believes modern defense attorneys would make a much stronger case for Webster than his own attorneys did. Webster gave them over 190 pages of notes detailing his defenses against each minute allegation and piece of evidence. The attorneys never even alluded to the notes. Webster felt betrayed, and said so at his sentencing. Sullivan also notes that Webster's attorneys ignored the two weakest points in testimony of the janitor at Harvard Medical College, Ephraim Littlefield, which easily could have been attacked. Littlefield had 24-hour access to Webster's lab, and he claimed to try to search Webster's rooms early Friday, before Parkman's disappearance was publicly known.

O.J. and Webster
John Webster's trial has often been compared to the twentieth-century O. J. Simpson trial. To people of the time, the trials may have been equal in celebrity, sensationalism, and repulsion, but the standards of evidence in the courtrooms where they were prosecuted were not equal. Each reflected its place in history.

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