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Jami FloydBack to OpinionJami Floyd

The trials of Boston

Massacre to Marathon and what it teaches about democracy

When the worst crime of 1770 occurred on a cold night in Boston — the “bloody butchery” of five patriots by nine British redcoats, no one would defend the soldiers accused of the crime.

Yet, John Adams took the case. “[N]o man in a free country should be denied right to counsel and a fair trial.” The young lawyer took the case, in large part, on principle, to demonstrate the impartiality of our colonial courts – and the better nature of our colonial selves. Boston, after all, would become the birthplace of our democracy.

A famous depiction of the Boston Massacrewas engraved by Paul Revere.

The Boston Massacre trial, as came to be known, is the most famously successful defense of those charged with heinous crimes amidst popular suspicions and prejudices, in our history. Going into the case, the men were presumed guilty. But, as Adams instructed the jury, “facts are stubborn things,” and at the end of it, their captain was found not guilty of giving the order to fire. Of the remaining soldiers, six were acquitted and two were found guilty only of manslaughter, punished only with a branding of the letter “M” on their thumbs.  With his defense, Adams laid the groundwork for a criminal justice system rooted in the right to counsel, fair trial and the right against self-incrimination.

Despite this affiliation with the crown, John Adams of course went on to lead the colonies to separation, revolution and independence. Representing the soldiers he was standing for not just the men accused but the undergirding principles of our democracy, including the notion that the even the most reviled among us deserves full and vigorous representation.

In 2013, there can be little doubt Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is the most reviled among us. He is has now reportedly admitted his role in planting and detonating an improvised explosive device that killed spectators at the historic Boston Marathon on Patriots’ Day. For that, authorities have charged him with using a weapon of mass destruction. Tsarnaev is also charged with malicious destruction of property by means of an explosion that resulted in death. Both charges carry a potential death sentence.

Even thought Tsarnaev has been a U.S. citizen for a year, and has lived in this country for ten, some conservative lawmakers have been calling for Tsarnaev to be treated as an “enemy combatant” under a 2001 resolution providing for the indefinite detention of non-citizens in the war against terrorism, specifically, “alleged members and supporters of al-Qaida or the Taliban.” The Obama administration has thus far rejected this notion (not surprising, given that the administration had previously announced its abandonment of the use of the term “enemy combatant,” in March 2009).

Tsarnaev, who is nineteen years old, apparently made his initial admissions without a lawyer present, under the public safety exception to the Miranda rule, which requires police to advise suspects of their right to remains silent and have a lawyer present for questioning. Those admissions are leading to Tweets like this:

“Why does US taxpayer monies have to be wasted on defending Boston bomber. He did it, nuff said.”


“…I hope those Boston terrorists burn in hell! :)”


“I will tell you right now. Boston wants him dead. So that’s what we already plan to do. The trial is just a waste of time.”

Those are not the principles that were celebrated on Patriots’ Day when the bombs went off, principles John Adams and our founders fought and, in many cases, gave their lives for, values for which thousands of American patriots have died defending for over two centuries. The right to counsel. The right to a fair trial. The presumption of innocence.

When our values come under attack, from any quarters, our response should be to defend them fiercely, not to sacrifice them in the face of fear. When we give in to our fears, and to easily let go of our most sacred democratic principles, the terrorists win.