I never realized I had anything in common with Abraham Lincoln until I re-watched a movie about the president’s early life as a trial attorney.
Yes, Honest Abe served as a lawyer who once worked for the railroads as well as those charged with criminal offenses. Henry Fonda played a young Abe Lincoln in a classic movie on Turner Classic Movies in which the Springfield former rail-splitter pulled a stunt in a courtroom that convinced a jury to find his client not guilty of murder.
A young man for whom Lincoln represented pro bono was charged with killing a man at night time in a wooded area. The main witness swore under oath that he was able to see the murder from more than 100 yards away because he was aided by the light of a full moon.
Lincoln boxed the man’s testimony in so that he would have no wiggle room by getting the witness to agree that no one could have seen what he saw if there was no full moon shining at that precise time.
Next, Lincoln “impeached” the witness with evidence from something called the Farmer’s Almanac, a written booklet that provided times and dates for the rising of the sun and the setting of the moon. Marking the booklet as a defense exhibit, Lincoln showed in stark detail how the moon had set some two hours before the time of the shooting and the jury agreed with him that the witness had fabricated his story. In other words, they believed the witness had lied and found the defendant not guilty.
I represented a young man charged with burglary and assault and used a similar device to show a witness could not have seen what they testified to have seen. An elderly person testified the sun had been up at the time the witness saw the man enter their house and remove items. It turned out to be the state’s star witness and the testimony came across as quite reliable.
“Did you know that the sun had not risen until two hours after this incident?” I asked the witness during cross-examination. Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Marvin R Halbert, a prosecutorial-oriented jurist, tried to admonish me by interrupting my questioning and cautioning the jury that my statement was not evidence and should be dismissed.
I then asked for a document I brought to court to be entered into evidence. It was the United States Naval Observatory Nautical Almanac which showed the exact time the sun rose on the given day in question. I had it “published” to the jury, that is, given by hand to the jurors to review as they passed it along noticing that the sun was not out at the time the witness claimed they could clearly see the assailant.
The jurors could not agree with the veracity of the witness and they became deadlocked. A mistrial was declared after the jurors reached what is called a “hung jury.” The case was retried by another lawyer from my office and it too ended in a hung jury. The client was finally set free months later when the prosecutor decided not to try the case a third time.
I saw the case as a victory “of the people, by the people and for the people” if I may borrow the words from the man who wrote that phrase one Pennsylvania morning. Thanks, Abe.