How Abraham Lincoln Argued a Murder Trial

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This week we're running a series of posts by Matt Soniak about Abraham Lincoln's foray into forensic meteorology. If you missed the first or second installments of the series, check them out.

May 3, 1858. Cass County, Illinois.

The Circuit Court of Cass County convened on Monday May 3rd, 1858, to begin Armstrong’s trial. Abraham Lincoln arrived in Beardstown, the county seat and site of the courthouse, on Thursday the 6th, only to find that the star witness for the People, Charles Allen, was missing.

Lincoln asked around among Armstrong’s friends and discovered that they had made an agreement with Allen. He would stay at a hotel in the nearby town of Virginia for the duration of the trial and not testify. In exchange, Armstrong’s friends would pay his living expenses. Lincoln explained to them that if Allen didn’t appear, the case would be continued and Duff Armstrong would have to wait in jail for the trial to be rescheduled. Realizing their error, two of Armstrong’s cousins hitched up their wagon and went to retrieve Allen that night. The next morning, the trial began.

Hugh Fullerton, the State’s Attorney, prosecuted the case. A private attorney named Collier, who’d been employed by Metzker’s brother, assisted him. William Walker, the senior member of the firm of Walker & Lacey, who had defended Armstong’s friend Norris the year before, assisted Lincoln.

During the early parts of the trial Collier more or less had the run of the show as he offered what appeared to be a solid case. Lincoln only sparingly cross-examined Collier’s witnesses, called few of his own, and spoke up occasionally only to double-check a few dates and place names. That is, until Charles Allen took the stand.

Allen testified that he'd seen Armstrong strike Metzker with the blow that killed him. On cross-examination, Lincoln pressed Allen for more details. How far away had he been standing? About 150 feet from the victim. What time was it? Approximately 11:00 pm. How could he be sure the assailant was Armstrong if it was the middle of the night and he was a good distance away from the action? “By the light of the moon,” Allen testified. He said it had been shining high in the sky and provided more than enough light. Throughout his questioning, Lincoln kept going back to these details and had Allen repeat himself several times about the moon.

Lincoln purchased an 1857 almanac from a nearby drug store and asked that it be entered into evidence. The judge allowed it, and Lincoln turned to the almanac’s August calendar. He showed the jury the pages and explained that on the night of the assault, the moon was in the first quarter and had set at three minutes after midnight. At the time Metzker claimed to have seen the attack, 11:00 p.m., the moon would have been riding low on the horizon and not directly overhead. (It is popularly believed, probably because it's been dramatized over the years, that the almanac showed there was no moon that night. In reality, it simply showed that its position in the sky did not match Allen’s description.)

When Lincoln read the facts from the almanac, laughter rose from the spectators and even some of the jurors. The moon, low on the horizon an hour before setting, probably still could have provided enough light for Allen to see the assault, but Lincoln had shifted the jury's attention away from the moon’s brightness and to its location. In the process, he revealed Allen’s mistake on this, casting doubt on the witness' testimony.

A juror recalled years later that “the jury thought Allen was telling the truth. I know that he impressed me that way, but his evidence with reference to the moon was so far from the facts that it destroyed his evidence with the jury.”

Lincoln did not rely solely on the almanac to defend Armstrong, though. He also had a doctor testify that the blow Norris struck to the back of Metzker’s head could have caused the wound on the front. Lincoln also gave a full-on performance during his closing arguments. The day the attorneys made their final remarks, it was hot in the courthouse. As Lincoln rose from his chair to speak, he took off his coat, vest and necktie. As he talked and paced in front of the jury box, his home-made knitted suspenders slipped off of one shoulder, falling to the side, where Lincoln let it sway until he was finished talking. Looking like a backcountry bumpkin, Lincoln spoke at length about his relationship with the Armstrong family and how much they meant to him, going so far as to plead for the life of the son of his old friends.

The jury deliberated for one hour, took only one ballot and delivered a unanimous acquittal. After the verdict was delivered, Lincoln reportedly shook hands with Armstrong, led him to his mother, and told him to care for her and try to be as good a man as his father. Then, he walked out of the courthouse and went back home to prepare for his Senate campaign.

Check back tomorrow for the story's conclusion and the repercussions of the trial in Lincoln's political career.

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September 15, 2011 - 9:30am
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