Saturday, May 07, 2016
President Barack Obama’s commencement address at Howard University, May 7, 2016.
After his introductory remarks, he got the gist of his speech. I believe it is one of the best speeches ever given in America to any audience. The emphasis in bold is mine.
Given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate, let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this: America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college. (Applause.) Let me repeat: America is by almost every measure better than it was when I graduated from college. It also happens to be better off than when I took office -- (laughter) -- but that's a longer story. (Applause.) That's a different discussion for another speech.
But think about it. I graduated in 1983. New York City, America’s largest city, where I lived at the time, had endured a decade marked by crime and deterioration and near bankruptcy. And many cities were in similar shape. Our nation had gone through years of economic stagnation, the stranglehold of foreign oil, a recession where unemployment nearly scraped 11 percent. The auto industry was getting its clock cleaned by foreign competition. And don’t even get me started on the clothes and the hairstyles. I've tried to eliminate all photos of me from this period. I thought I looked good. (Laughter.) I was wrong.
Since that year -- since the year I graduated -- the poverty rate is down. Americans with college degrees, that rate is up. Crime rates are down. America’s cities have undergone a renaissance. There are more women in the workforce. They’re earning more money. We’ve cut teen pregnancy in half. We've slashed the African American dropout rate by almost 60 percent, and all of you have a computer in your pocket that gives you the world at the touch of a button. In 1983, I was part of fewer than 10 percent of African Americans who graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Today, you’re part of the more than 20 percent who will. And more than half of blacks say we’re better off than our parents were at our age -- and that our kids will be better off, too.
So America is better. And the world is better, too. A wall came down in Berlin. An Iron Curtain was torn asunder. The obscenity of apartheid came to an end. A young generation in Belfast and London have grown up without ever having to think about IRA bombings. In just the past 16 years, we’ve come from a world without marriage equality to one where it’s a reality in nearly two dozen countries. Around the world, more people live in democracies. We’ve lifted more than 1 billion people from extreme poverty. We’ve cut the child mortality rate worldwide by more than half.
America is better. The world is better. And stay with me now -- race relations are better since I graduated. That’s the truth. No, my election did not create a post-racial society. I don’t know who was propagating that notion. That was not mine. But the election itself -- and the subsequent one -- because the first one, folks might have made a mistake. (Laughter.) The second one, they knew what they were getting.
The election itself was just one indicator of how attitudes had changed.
In my inaugural address, I remarked that just 60 years earlier, my father might not have been served in a D.C. restaurant -- at least not certain of them. There were no black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Very few black judges. Shoot, as Larry Wilmore pointed out last week, a lot of folks didn’t even think blacks had the tools to be a quarterback. Today, former Bull Michael Jordan isn’t just the greatest basketball player of all time -- he owns the team. (Laughter.)
When I was graduating, the main black hero on TV was Mr. T. (Laughter.) Rap and hip hop were counterculture, underground. Now, Shonda Rhimes owns Thursday night, and Beyoncé runs the world. (Laughter.) We’re no longer only entertainers, we're producers, studio executives. No longer small business owners -- we're CEOs, we’re mayors, representatives, Presidents of the United States. (Applause.)
I am not saying gaps do not persist. Obviously, they do. Racism persists. Inequality persists. Don’t worry -- I’m going to get to that. But I wanted to start, Class of 2016, by opening your eyes to the moment that you are in.
If you had to choose one moment in history in which you could be born, and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be -- what nationality, what gender, what race, whether you’d be rich or poor, gay or straight, what faith you'd be born into -- you wouldn’t choose 100 years ago. You wouldn’t choose the fifties, or the sixties, or the seventies. You’d choose right now. If you had to choose a time to be, in the words of Lorraine Hansberry, “young, gifted, and black” in America, you would choose right now. (Applause.)
I tell you all this because it's important to note progress. Because to deny how far we’ve come would do a disservice to the cause of justice, to the legions of foot soldiers; to not only the incredibly accomplished individuals who have already been mentioned, but your mothers and your dads, and grandparents and great grandparents, who marched and toiled and suffered and overcame to make this day possible.
I tell you this not to lull you into complacency, but to spur you into action -- because there’s still so much more work to do, so many more miles to travel. And America needs you to gladly, happily take up that work. You all have some work to do. So enjoy the party, because you're going to be busy. (Laughter.)
Yes, our economy has recovered from crisis stronger than almost any other in the world. But there are folks of all races who are still hurting -- who still can’t find work that pays enough to keep the lights on, who still can’t save for retirement. We’ve still got a big racial gap in economic opportunity.
The overall unemployment rate is 5 percent, but the black unemployment rate is almost nine. We’ve still got an achievement gap when black boys and girls graduate high school and college at lower rates than white boys and white girls. Harriet Tubman may be going on the twenty, but we’ve still got a gender gap when a black woman working full-time still earns just 66 percent of what a white man gets paid. (Applause.)
We’ve got a justice gap when too many black boys and girls pass through a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails. This is one area where things have gotten worse. When I was in college, about half a million people in America were behind bars. Today, there are about 2.2 million. Black men are about six times likelier to be in prison right now than white men.
Around the world, we’ve still got challenges to solve that threaten everybody in the 21st century -- old scourges like disease and conflict, but also new challenges, from terrorism and climate change.
So make no mistake, Class of 2016 -- you’ve got plenty of work to do.
But as complicated and sometimes intractable as these challenges may seem, the truth is that your generation is better positioned than any before you to meet those challenges, to flip the script.
Now, how you do that, how you meet these challenges, how you bring about change will ultimately be up to you. My generation, like all generations, is too confined by our own experience, too invested in our own biases, too stuck in our ways to provide much of the new thinking that will be required.
But us old-heads have learned a few things that might be useful in your journey. So with the rest of my time, I’d like to offer some suggestions for how young leaders like you can fulfill your destiny and shape our collective future -- bend it in the direction of justice and equality and freedom.
First of all -- and this should not be a problem for this group -- be confident in your heritage. (Applause.)
Be confident in your blackness. One of the great changes that’s occurred in our country since I was your age is the realization there's no one way to be black. Take it from somebody who’s seen both sides of debate about whether I'm black enough. (Laughter.) In the past couple months, I’ve had lunch with the Queen of England and hosted Kendrick Lamar in the Oval Office. There’s no straitjacket, there's no constraints, there's no litmus test for authenticity.
Look at Howard. One thing most folks don’t know about Howard is how diverse it is. When you arrived here, some of you were like, oh, they've got black people in Iowa? (Laughter.) But it’s true -- this class comes from big cities and rural communities, and some of you crossed oceans to study here.
You shatter stereotypes. Some of you come from a long line of Bison. Some of you are the first in your family to graduate from college. (Applause.) You all talk different, you all dress different. You’re Lakers fans, Celtics fans, maybe even some hockey fans. (Laughter.)
And because of those who've come before you, you have models to follow. You can work for a company, or start your own. You can go into politics, or run an organization that holds politicians accountable. You can write a book that wins the National Book Award, or you can write the new run of “Black Panther.” Or, like one of your alumni, Ta-Nehisi Coates, you can go ahead and just do both. You can create your own style, set your own standard of beauty, embrace your own sexuality.
Think about an icon we just lost -- Prince. He blew up categories. People didn’t know what Prince was doing. (Laughter.) And folks loved him for it.
You need to have the same confidence. Or as my daughters tell me all the time, “You be you, Daddy.” (Laughter.) Sometimes Sasha puts a variation on it -- "You do you, Daddy." (Laughter.) And because you’re a black person doing whatever it is that you're doing, that makes it a black thing. Feel confident.
Second, even as we each embrace our own beautiful, unique, and valid versions of our blackness, remember the tie that does bind us as African Americans -- and that is our particular awareness of injustice and unfairness and struggle. That means we cannot sleepwalk through life.
We cannot be ignorant of history. (Applause.) We can’t meet the world with a sense of entitlement.
We can’t walk by a homeless man without asking why a society as wealthy as ours allows that state of affairs to occur. We can’t just lock up a low-level dealer without asking why this boy, barely out of childhood, felt he had no other options. We have cousins and uncles and brothers and sisters who we remember were just as smart and just as talented as we were, but somehow got ground down by structures that are unfair and unjust.
And that means we have to not only question the world as it is, and stand up for those African Americans who haven’t been so lucky -- because, yes, you've worked hard, but you've also been lucky. That's a pet peeve of mine: People who have been successful and don’t realize they've been lucky. That God may have blessed them; it wasn’t nothing you did.
So don’t have an attitude. But we must expand our moral imaginations to understand and empathize with all people who are struggling, not just black folks who are struggling -- the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender person, and yes, the middle-aged white guy who you may think has all the advantages, but over the last several decades has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change, and feels powerless to stop it. You got to get in his head, too.
Number three: You have to go through life with more than just passion for change; you need a strategy. I'll repeat that. I want you to have passion, but you have to have a strategy. Not just awareness, but action. Not just hashtags, but votes.
You see, change requires more than righteous anger. It requires a program, and it requires organizing. At the 1964 Democratic Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer -- all five-feet-four-inches tall -- gave a fiery speech on the national stage. But then she went back home to Mississippi and organized cotton pickers. And she didn't have the tools and technology where you can whip up a movement in minutes. She had to go door to door.
And I’m so proud of the new guard of black civil rights leaders who understand this. It’s thanks in large part to the activism of young people like many of you, from Black Twitter to Black Lives Matter, that America’s eyes have been opened -- white, black, Democrat, Republican -- to the real problems, for example, in our criminal justice system.
But to bring about structural change, lasting change, awareness is not enough. It requires changes in law, changes in custom. If you care about mass incarceration, let me ask you: How are you pressuring members of Congress to pass the criminal justice reform bill now pending before them? (Applause.) If you care about better policing, do you know who your district attorney is? Do you know who your state’s attorney general is? Do you know the difference? Do you know who appoints the police chief and who writes the police training manual?
Find out who they are, what their responsibilities are. Mobilize the community, present them with a plan, work with them to bring about change, hold them accountable if they do not deliver. Passion is vital, but you've got to have a strategy.
And your plan better include voting -- not just some of the time, but all the time. (Applause.) It is absolutely true that 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, there are still too many barriers in this country to vote. There are too many people trying to erect new barriers to voting. This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote. And there's a reason for that. There's a legacy to that.
But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world.
In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms -- the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout -- that would be you -- was less than 20 percent. Less than 20 percent. Four out of five did not vote. In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out.
You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with? And then people are wondering, well, how come Obama hasn’t gotten this done? How come he didn’t get that done? You don’t think that made a difference?
What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country? People try to make this political thing really complicated. Like, what kind of reforms do we need? And how do we need to do that?
You know what, just vote. It's math.
If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want. (Laughter.) It's not that complicated.
And you don’t have excuses.
You don’t have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar or bubbles on a bar of soap to register to vote. You don’t have to risk your life to cast a ballot. Other people already did that for you. (Applause.) Your grandparents, your great grandparents might be here today if they were working on it.
What's your excuse? When we don’t vote, we give away our power, disenfranchise ourselves -- right when we need to use the power that we have; right when we need your power to stop others from taking away the vote and rights of those more vulnerable than you are -- the elderly and the poor, the formerly incarcerated trying to earn their second chance.
So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it's time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired.
It's your duty.
When it’s time to elect a member of Congress or a city councilman, or a school board member, or a sheriff. That’s how we change our politics -- by electing people at every level who are representative of and accountable to us.
It is not that complicated. Don’t make it complicated.
And finally, change requires more than just speaking out -- it requires listening, as well.
In particular, it requires listening to those with whom you disagree, and being prepared to compromise.
When I was a state senator, I helped pass Illinois’s first racial profiling law, and one of the first laws in the nation requiring the videotaping of confessions in capital cases. And we were successful because, early on, I engaged law enforcement. I didn’t say to them, oh, you guys are so racist, you need to do something. I understood, as many of you do, that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good, and honest, and courageous, and fair, and love the communities they serve.
And we knew there were some bad apples, and that even the good cops with the best of intentions -- including, by the way, African American police officers -- might have unconscious biases, as we all do. So we engaged and we listened, and we kept working until we built consensus. And because we took the time to listen, we crafted legislation that was good for the police -- because it improved the trust and cooperation of the community -- and it was good for the communities, who were less likely to be treated unfairly.
And I can say this unequivocally: Without at least the acceptance of the police organizations in Illinois, I could never have gotten those bills passed. Very simple. They would have blocked them.
The point is, you need allies in a democracy. That's just the way it is. I
t can be frustrating and it can be slow. But history teaches us that the alternative to democracy is always worse. That's not just true in this country. It’s not a black or white thing. Go to any country where the give and take of democracy has been repealed by one-party rule, and I will show you a country that does not work.
And democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right.
This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you.
If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want.
And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair.
And that's never been the source of our progress. That's how we cheat ourselves of progress.
We remember Dr. King’s soaring oratory, the power of his letter from a Birmingham jail, the marches he led.
But he also sat down with President Johnson in the Oval Office to try and get a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act passed.
And those two seminal bills were not perfect -- just like the Emancipation Proclamation was a war document as much as it was some clarion call for freedom. Those mileposts of our progress were not perfect. They did not make up for centuries of slavery or Jim Crow or eliminate racism or provide for 40 acres and a mule.
But they made things better. And you know what, I will take better every time.
I always tell my staff -- better is good, because you consolidate your gains and then you move on to the next fight from a stronger position.
Brittany Packnett, a member of the Black Lives Matter movement and Campaign Zero, one of the Ferguson protest organizers, she joined our Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Some of her fellow activists questioned whether she should participate.
She rolled up her sleeves and sat at the same table with big city police chiefs and prosecutors. And because she did, she ended up shaping many of the recommendations of that task force. And those recommendations are now being adopted across the country -- changes that many of the protesters called for.
If young activists like Brittany had refused to participate out of some sense of ideological purity, then those great ideas would have just remained ideas.
But she did participate. And that’s how change happens.
America is big and it is boisterous and it is more diverse than ever. The president [of the university] told me that we've got a significant Nepalese contingent here at Howard. I would not have guessed that. Right on. But it just tells you how interconnected we're becoming. And with so many folks from so many places, converging, we are not always going to agree with each other.
Another Howard alum, Zora Neale Hurston, once said -- this is a good quote here:
“Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person.”
Think about that. That’s why our democracy gives us a process designed for us to settle our disputes with argument and ideas and votes instead of violence and simple majority rule.
So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them.
There's been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally.
Don’t do that -- no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.
Because as my grandmother used to tell me, every time a fool speaks, they are just advertising their own ignorance. Let them talk. Let them talk. If you don’t, you just make them a victim, and then they can avoid accountability.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge them.
Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position.
There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice.
But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.
And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you -- you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. (Laughter.)
I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you've got to start with the world as it is.
So that’s my advice. That’s how you change things.
Change isn’t something that happens every four years or eight years; change is not placing your faith in any particular politician and then just putting your feet up and saying, okay, go.
Change is the effort of committed citizens who hitch their wagons to something bigger than themselves and fight for it every single day.
That’s what Thurgood Marshall understood -- a man who once walked this year, graduated from Howard Law; went home to Baltimore, started his own law practice. He and his mentor, Charles Hamilton Houston, rolled up their sleeves and they set out to overturn segregation. They worked through the NAACP. Filed dozens of lawsuits, fought dozens of cases. And after nearly 20 years of effort -- 20 years -- Thurgood Marshall ultimately succeeded in bringing his righteous cause before the Supreme Court, and securing the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that separate could never be equal. (Applause.)
Marshall, Houston -- they knew it would not be easy. They knew it would not be quick. They knew all sorts of obstacles would stand in their way. They knew that even if they won, that would just be the beginning of a longer march to equality. But they had discipline. They had persistence. They had faith -- and a sense of humor. And they made life better for all Americans.
And I know you graduates share those qualities. I know it because I've learned about some of the young people graduating here today. There's a young woman named Ciearra Jefferson, who’s graduating with you. And I'm just going to use her as an example. I hope you don’t mind, Ciearra.
Ciearra grew up in Detroit and was raised by a poor single mom who worked seven days a week in an auto plant. And for a time, her family found themselves without a place to call home. They bounced around between friends and family who might take them in. By her senior year, Ciearra was up at 5:00 am every day, juggling homework, extracurricular activities, volunteering, all while taking care of her little sister. But she knew that education was her ticket to a better life. So she never gave up. Pushed herself to excel. This daughter of a single mom who works on the assembly line turned down a full scholarship to Harvard to come to Howard. (Applause.)
And today, like many of you, Ciearra is the first in her family to graduate from college. And then, she says, she’s going to go back to her hometown, just like Thurgood Marshall did, to make sure all the working folks she grew up with have access to the health care they need and deserve. As she puts it, she’s going to be a “change agent.” She’s going to reach back and help folks like her succeed.
And people like Ciearra are why I remain optimistic about America. (Applause.) Young people like you are why I never give in to despair.
James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Graduates, each of us is only here because someone else faced down challenges for us. We are only who we are because someone else struggled and sacrificed for us.
That's not just Thurgood Marshall’s story, or Ciearra’s story, or my story, or your story -- that is the story of America. A story whispered by slaves in the cotton fields, the song of marchers in Selma, the dream of a King in the shadow of Lincoln. The prayer of immigrants who set out for a new world. The roar of women demanding the vote. The rallying cry of workers who built America. And the GIs who bled overseas for our freedom.
Now it’s your turn. And the good news is, you’re ready. And when your journey seems too hard, and when you run into a chorus of cynics who tell you that you’re being foolish to keep believing or that you can’t do something, or that you should just give up, or you should just settle -- you might say to yourself a little phrase that I’ve found handy these last eight years: Yes, we can.
Congratulations, Class of 2016! (Applause.) Good luck! God bless you. God bless the United States of America. I'm proud of you.
Monday, May 02, 2016
The first sensational murder trial in 19th century America occurred between March 31 and April 1, 1800 in New York City. The newspapers of the time were all over this case and it is said to be the first trial ever transcribed in this country. It was a sensation, partly because the defense included a “dream team” starring Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton as co-counsel.
Near the corner of Spring Street and Greene Street in the SoHo section of lower New York, there once was an abandoned well that was owned by the Manhattan Company, a private banking concern that was formed in 1799. Its investors included prominent New Yorkers Burr and Hamilton.
On January 2, 1800, a body was found floating in the icy water at the bottom of the well. When it was removed, it lay on the snowy ground for a long time before it was identified by a young man who knew her “intimately.” He was a 24 year-old man named Levi Weeks.
Levi was the brother of Ezra Weeks, who was a well-known builder in the city, an employee
of the Manhattan Company. Ezra had built Hamilton’s residence and, later, Gracie Mansion, the New York mayor’s official residence.
The dead woman was named Gulielma (Elma) Sands. She had been missing since December 22, when she had left the boardinghouse where she lived. Levi Weeks also lived in the house. Catherine Sands, Elma’s cousin, later claimed that Elma told her that she and Levi were to be secretly married the night she disappeared. The sources are conflicting as to whether Elma was pregnant.
The coroner’s examination was apparently conducted as an afterthought: the body had been removed from the well, had lain on a board for some time, and had been moved several times until taken to the boardinghouse in a coffin. There, a doctor observed some marks on her neck, and concluded that she had been killed by “violent pressure upon the neck” before the body was dropped into the well.
Levi Weeks was arrested and the newspapers began their assault. What was the motive?
One reported that Weeks had been “seduced by the instigation of the Devil.”
Aaron Burr, (b. 1756) had fought in the Revolution, became a New York legislator, then a candidate for President, losing to Adams, Jefferson, and Pinckney. (In November, 1800, he would be elected Vice-President to Jefferson.) Burr had formed the Bank of the Manhattan Company in 1799. (It would later become Chase Manhattan Bank, now JPMorgan-Chase.)
Burr was also a practicing lawyer in the city. He was willing, at the urging of his employee Ezra Weeks, to defend Levi without fee. This was not a selfless act because the reputation of the Manhattan Company was at stake as the microscope of publicity focused on its well and its other waterworks. (The waterworks were eventually sold to the city for an exorbitant profit.)
Burr enlisted one of the other investors in the company, the lawyer Alexander Hamilton (b.1755). Hamilton had been Washington’s chief of staff in the Revolutionary War, and had been the first Secretary of the Treasury. He had fallen from power and grace after a notorious sex scandal involving an adulterous affair. He had paid hush money to the woman’s husband in return for love letters Hamilton had written. The letters were exposed by Hamilton’s political enemies (including Jefferson), and Hamilton (not the Bill Clinton of his day) admitted the affair. However, he denied the claim that he had paid the blackmail from embezzled funds. Thus, he thought he preserved his honor — if not his career.
Although Hamilton and Burr were often rivals in ambition, going back to the Revolutionary War, and continued their competition in politics (Hamilton was a Federalist; Burr a Democratic Republican), they had ties to each other in the close knit New York society of their time. Thus, it was not unusual for them to be sometimes on the same side of an issue and this was one.
The trial was held in Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street (now the site of the U.S. Customs House). The judge presiding was John Lansing (b.1754), chief justice of the New York State Supreme Court. In the War, Lansing had served under General Phillip Schuyler, who later became Hamilton’s father-in-law. Lansing was one of the three New York representatives at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He opposed its ratification as an Anti-Federalist, but was appointed to the bench to enforce it nonetheless.
The prosecutor was the assistant attorney general, colorfully named Cadwallader D. Colden (b. 1769), who had ben educated in the law in London. His grandfather, the first Cadwallader, was Irish. He was a physician, botanist, and, after emigrating, became acting colonial governor of New York. He died in 1776, still a committed loyalist. Grandson “D.” was an ambitious prosecutor, who would later become District Attorney, fight in the War of 1812, push for the abolition of slavery in New York (grandpa had owned at least three) and became the 54th mayor of New York City.
The local press reported that hundreds if not thousands came to the courthouse to view the trial, some hanging from trees to catch a glimpse of the evil prisoner. Many shouted, “Crucify him!” when Weeks was dragged from his miserable cell into the courthouse.
Trials in those days were not dragged out. Three months from arrest to trial, and the trial lasted only two days. But the days were very long: one went to at least four in the morning.
Colden sunk his teeth into the lurid details of the case, which he termed a crime of passion. A witness described the “warm courtship” between Weeks and Sands. When they were together, others in the boardinghouse heard sounds of “rustling beds, such as might be occasioned by a man and wife.” Another called it a “very intimate situation.”
A witness claimed to have been in the vicinity of the well on the night Ms. Sands disappeared, and to have heard a woman’s shriek “in distress” which was then “muffled.” There were sled tracks in the snow, allegedly from Weeks’ sleigh. The “several spots pretty much in a row around her neck” were proof of strangulation. A witness claimed that when Weeks was first told about a body in a well, he had blurted, “Is it the Manhattan well?”
The prosecutor acknowledged that the case was based on circumstantial evidence, but quoted a law treatise: “Circumstantial evidence is all that can be expected, and indeed all that is necessary to substantiate such a charge.” It was enough to convince the gallery, the mob waiting in the streets, and the press.
But then came the defense. Hamilton tried to undermine the credibility of witnesses in his cross-examination. He presented scientific evidence of the thickness of the walls in boardinghouse to attack the witnesses who claimed to have heard incriminating sounds coming from other rooms.
But Burr turned out to be the star of the “dream team,” the Johnny Cochran of the case. Although Burr was not a criminal law specialist, he had a great deal at stake in the outcome and one source ascribes his brilliance in this case to his feeling that his client, like he, was an underdog, victimized by an insensitive society.
Burr attacked the Cadwallader’s ambition: “Extraordinary means have been adopted to enflame the public against the prisoner,” he said. “Why has the body been exposed for days in the streets in a manner most indecent and shocking? Such dreadful scenes speak powerfully to the passions: They petrify our mind with horror — congeal the blood in our veins.” The mood in the courtroom began to shift away from lynching and toward a more balanced view if not great sympathy for the man on trial for his life.
The prosecutor had drawn an ugly picture of a love match gone dreadfully awry. The only problem, Burr argued calmly, was that it lacked any evidence to prove it. What was the proof that there had ever, in truth, been a courtship at all? The whispers of gossips. What evidence was there of a proposal of marriage? Of a rejection? Of any motive to kill the poor lady?
Burr cited the corollary to the legal rule that permitted circumstantial evidence. Like the pillars of a building, every part must hold up, or else “the whole must tumble down.”
Burr then detailed the gaps in the supposed incriminatory facts. First, the medical testimony of strangling was deficient because by the time the body had been examined by a physician, it had been “well manhandled.” When it had been seen at first, no such “marks” had been observed by anyone. Second, no one saw Weeks out in his sleigh the night of the crime. The tracks in the snow could have been made by any sleigh. Third, those who “heard” the sounds suggestive of sexual relations did not see the parties. They could not swear that Levi Weeks was the man.
Burr had the essential traits of a fine defense lawyer. He was a skilled counterpuncher, adept at poking enough holes in his opponent’s arguments that the structure of his case collapsed.
He called a blacksmith named Joseph Watkins who asserted that a man named Elias Ring, though married to another, had “loud, rambunctious” sex with Elma. Watkins could hear them through the wall and recognized Ring’s voice, and in fact, had told his wife what he had heard.
Watkins also told another boarder, a man named Croucher, about it. Croucher had tried to protect his friend Ring by blaming it on Weeks. At this point, the prosecutor was outraged. He objected: Where is this alleged person, Croucher?
The trial had gone on until late in the night. Hamilton then rose, picked up a candle, and pushed his way into the crowd of murmuring spectators. He held the candle up to a man’s face, the light giving it an eerie aspect. “Is this the man, Croucher?” Yes, the witness said, that is he.
Cadwallader tried to rebut but his arguments fell limp after that. It was four in the morning by the time the exhausted court gratefully heard Hamilton say that no summation by the defense was needed. The jury took five minutes to reach a not guilty verdict.
The verdict was unpopular. Levi Weeks was encouraged to leave town. He moved to Nachez, Mississippi, married and thrived as an architect. His mansion survived the Civil War, and is listed as a national historical landmark.
In 1804, Jefferson dropped Burr from the ticket. Burr then ran for governor of New York and lost. He blamed his loss on slanders by his opponents, including Alexander Hamilton, who had called Burr “a dangerous man, who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” Burr demanded that Hamilton disavow the remarks. Hamilton dithered, denied, and then refused on his honor (which had already suffered in scandal, making him sensitive to another slap). Burr felt dishonored too. On July 11 in Weehauken they fought their famous duel and Hamilton didn’t win.
Burr’s propensity for overly ambitious schemes got him into serious trouble later when he was tried for treason. The charges stemmed from a land scheme in the territory that was part of the Louisiana Purchase. President Jefferson pushed the indictment, believing the accusation that Burr was trying to stir up war with Spain or France in order to steal the land for himself.
Burr’s trials in 1807 provided still more drama for the country. Chief Justice John Marshall ignored the pressure Jefferson applied toward a conviction. He ruled that the evidence of Burr’s presence at crucial times was not proved, and a letter allegedly showing Burr’s involvement was forged. Burr was eventually acquitted of the charges although historians have debated his guilt ever since.
He lived until 1836, having fled for a time to Europe, then returned to practice law in New York. He stayed in the news by marrying a wealthy widow, who divorced him while he lay on his deathbed. Though in his 70’s, he had continued his lifelong pursuit of sexual adventures, which stopped only when he suffered a paralytic stroke.
Judge Lansing's fate was even more bizarre. One night in December 1829, when he was 75 years old, he went for a walk to mail a letter and was never seen again, dead or alive. Whether he drowned or was murdered was never discovered.
The legal lesson:
Judge Lansing's fate was even more bizarre. One night in December 1829, when he was 75 years old, he went for a walk to mail a letter and was never seen again, dead or alive. Whether he drowned or was murdered was never discovered.
The legal lesson:
The Weeks case turned on the often misunderstood legal issue of circumstantial evidence. Cadwallader was correct in his summary of the general rule that it is just as good as direct evidence. Even today, jurors are instructed that both are sufficient to convict.
The difference is that, unlike direct evidence (e.g., “I saw him kill her”), circumstantial evidence requires another step, an inference, to prove the fact.
The defense was also correct in warning that every fact that pointed to guilt had to be believed in order for guilt to be proved. For example, suppose the witness does not say, “I saw him kill her,” but instead testifies: “I heard a loud noise, then a thud, and saw him run from the room carrying an shiny metal object.” If the loud noise was a gunshot, and if the thud was the body falling, and if it was the defendant running away and if the shiny object was a gun, then an inference might be drawn that he had killed her.
But if any one of the necessary inferences is unproved, or if another reasonable innocent inference could be drawn from the facts, then no guilt can be found.