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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A. Lincoln For The Defense

Recently, I issued a post which mentioned the Duff Armstrong murder case, in which Lincoln won an acquittal. Reading further about Lincoln's law career, I came across another of Lincoln's murder cases. Like many Lincoln stories, documentation of the details of this case relies partly on records and partly on folklore.

In 1857, Lincoln represented Melissa Goings, who slugged her abusive husband over the head which resulted in his eventual death. She was charged with murder, although many in the Metamora, Illinois community sympathized with her, knowing her husband's reputation for overly aggressive wife beating.

According to the local legend version of the case, Ms. Goings had been released on bond which had been posted by sympathizers. But the judge, who was not sympathetic to her plight, revoked her bail and remanded her to custody. Sensing the case was going badly, Lincoln asked for time to meet in private with his client and was placed with her in a room on the first floor of the courthouse while the bailiff stood guard outside the door.

At one point, Lincoln left the room. After a while, the bailiff entered and found that Ms. Goings had escaped through an open window.

In a packed courtroom, Lincoln was questioned about his client's absence. He shrugged, said that she had asked him for a drink of water. He told her that the water in Tennessee was sweet. He then left the room.

Supposedly, the audience in the court burst into laughter.

Whether this story is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is in doubt. It fits a bit too well into the Lincoln lore - admiration for the man of the people who knew how to evade the harsh letter of the law in order to evoke the spirit of the law. The record is devoid of any reference to sanctions imposed upon Lincoln for what the judge surely would have perceived as outrageously unethical conduct.

If Lincoln had made the statements attributed to him, it may have been an example of his famous sense of humor, meant to defuse a tense situation, rather than a serious implication of his complicity.

Historians note that a warrant was issued for Goings' arrest, but when Lincoln returned the next year, he met with the prosecutor and the warrant was quashed and the case dismissed. It has been inferred that, because the community sided with her plight, the lawyers may have conspired to "settle" the matter this way.

Lincoln spent 23 years as a practising lawyer, representing clients in an estimated 5,000 cases of all sorts. Scholars make the case that his experiences as a lawyer during those years formed the character that marked Lincoln's future greatness as president.

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