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Archive for Saturday, July 22, 2000

Trial won’t rewrite history

July 22, 2000

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— With the colonies in turmoil, George Washington led America's independence movement in the 1770s. But was his victory a triumph or treason?

This week, the American Bar Assn. put the leaders of the Revolutionary War on trial in full period costume -- Washington for high treason and King George III for tyranny. But hung juries left the answer to history.

Thursday's session, on the closing day of the association's meeting here, forced Washington to answer to criminal charges for breaking his oath of loyalty to the king and inciting rebellion in the kingdom.

The king, in turn, was brought before a mock U.S. court in a civil suit filed by a fictitious victim of the Revolutionary War.

He was accused of tyranny, in part for ordering British troops to continue fighting Patriot forces despite the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

The cross-examination of Washington reflected the debate over the 1775-1781 American War of Independence: Was it possible for Washington to have come to a peaceful resolution with Britain? Did he use unnecessary brutality? Did the 1776 Declaration of Independence subvert British law and amount to treason?

The actor playing Washington -- dressed in white wig, waist coat and breeches -- admitted waging war against British troops, but argued a defense of necessity.

"If there is a king in America, it is the people," he thundered before several hundred litigious spectators.

Washington's counsel, Boston attorney Rikki Klieman, argued that her client was innocent. "War is never necessary, but often it is just," she told the six jurors hearing the case.

But allegations in the prosecution's indictment against Washington that he oversaw the Christmas 1776 killing of '30 loyal subjects of the Crown" -- an apparent reference to enemy troops who died during the Battle of Trenton -- might have had an effect on the jury. The indictment also charged that Washington -- also a farmer -- stood to gain financially from an independent America.

After two hours of deliberation, four of the six jurors found Washington not guilty. Under British law, an unanimous verdict would have been required to acquit him.

As for King George, jurors could not agree on whether the United States had the right to try him or whether he enjoyed sovereign immunity in a foreign state, an argument put forth by his majesty's lawyers. They split 3-3.

The mock debate reflected the ongoing legal argument over the rights afforded heads of state such as former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, said Lucinda Low of the Washington, D.C., law firm Miller and Chevalier.

Chile's Supreme Court opened hearings Wednesday on whether the former dictator should stand trial on human rights charges.

"What we're seeing in the area of sovereign immunity is that it is not going to occur behind closed doors," Low said during a panel discussion following the mock trials. "We are confronting a public sense that there should not be impunity."

About 4,000 U.S. lawyers flooded London for the conference, which offered meetings and seminars on everything from dealing with the media to dealing with depression.

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