March 5, 2020 marked the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre. That evening, the tensions between Bostonians and the 2,000 British troops stationed in the town to enforce the tax burden imposed by the Townsend Act resulted in a clash that killed five civilians.
Boston authorities arrested Captain Thomas Preston, Corporal William Wemms and seven other soldiers. As an officer, Preston was tried separately from his men.
On October 24, 1770, Preston’s trial began. The soldiers’ trials began on November 27.
Trials of all these men made American legal history according to bostonmassacre.net. It was the first time an American judge used the phrase “reasonable doubt” in instructing a jury.
Attorneys for the accused were John Adams and Josiah Quincy, Jr. Said Adams, “Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
Preston was fully acquitted as were all but two of the soldiers. Adams invoked an English common law precedent for these first offenders known as the benefit of clergy and these were also released.
Oddly, Adams’ unpopular defense of the British eventually bolstered his reputation as an honorable man and he subsequently became President of the United States.
“The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.” –John Adams