Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Steven Lubet's "Fugitive Justice"

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Bartlit Center for Trial Strategy, Northwestern University School of Law.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial, and reported the following:
Early on the morning of September 11, 1851, a Maryland plantation owner named Edward Gorsuch led a small posse in search of four fugitive slaves who had escaped to the town of Christiana, Pennsylvania. Armed with a warrant issued under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Gorsuch expected little trouble when he and his men approached a stone cabin where he believed the runaways were hiding. Instead, he was met with a hail of gunfire. The fugitives had trumpeted an alarm, and soon the slavehunters were themselves surrounded by dozens of “armed Negroes” and a handful of unarmed white supporters. Gorsuch was killed in the ensuing battle and two of his men were badly wounded. All of the fugitives escaped. In the aftermath of the battle, 41 men – five whites and 37 blacks – were indicted for the capital offense of treason.

Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial tells the story of the Christiana prosecution – as well as the stories of other major trials under the Fugitive Slave Act, spanning the decade before the Civil War. It explains how courageous runaways resisted recapture, and how their defenders eventually developed the legal defense that we now call “civil disobedience.”

Page 99 of Fugitive Justice falls squarely in the middle of the Christiana trial. At the beginning of the page we see the racism of the lead prosecutor, whose fevered imagination led him to complain loudly that the black defendants were accompanied in court by “white females.” We then see how the defense attorneys – including the abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens – took advantage of the prosecutors’ “bullying and bravado” by leading them into a trap from which their case could never recover.

Stevens's brilliant advocacy won acquittals or dismissals for all of the Christiana defendants, but later fugitive slave trials did not end as successfully. Many fugitives were returned to the South in chains, and many (though far from all) rescuers were tried and convicted.

As the decade progressed, resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act continued and the tactics of the abolitionist lawyers became increasingly militant. The highly publicized trials eventually helped build the northern anti-slavery movement, while driving southern firebrands ever closer to secession.
Learn more about Fugitive Justice at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue