David Bruce: Law Anecdotes


Following the 1963 Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right of indigent defendants to have free legal counsel in many court cases, Clarence Earl Gideon was retried on the charge of burglary that he had previously been found guilty of in a trial in which he did not have a lawyer. This time, he was represented by a competent lawyer, and he was found not guilty. After having served two years of a five-year sentence as prisoner #003826 in the state of Florida, he was released from prison. Of course, Gideon v. Wainwright applied to many more people than just Mr. Gideon. Once, a young man told Mr. Gideon, “I should thank you. You just got me out of prison.” The case was so important that Anthony Lewis wrote a book titled Gideon’s Trumpet about it. When Mr. Gideon received a copy, he wept. After Mr. Gideon died of cancer in 1972, the American Civil Liberties Union erected a tombstone over his grave. Engraved on the tombstone is a sentence from Mr. Gideon’s letter to the Supreme Court asking it to review his trial and conviction: “Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”

R’ Elya Chaim, the Rabbi in Lodz, once helped a Jew who got in trouble because of his honesty. The Jew had found 1,000 rubles on the street, then learned that a noble had lost the money and was offering a reward of 100 rubles for its return. The Jew returned the money to the noble, but after counting the money, the noble decided not to pay the reward. Instead, to get out of paying the reward, he claimed that he had really lost 2,000 rubles and that the Jew had stolen 1,000 rubles from him. In addition, he had the Jew arrested. R’ Elya Chaim asked the Jew to send his lawyer to him so he could advise him on how to conduct the case. At the trial, the lawyer made the noble swear that he had lost 2,000 rubles, then told the judges, “Your honors, you now have a sworn statement by the noble that the money which was found is not his. The finder is an honest man. If he had been dishonest, he would not have returned anything. If he found only 1,000 rubles, that is clear proof that this money must have been lost by someone else, and not by the noble.” The judges ruled in favor of the Jew, and he got to keep the 1,000 rubles.

At the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, torture was used, even of children. For example, Martha Carrier was accused of being a witch. Her two oldest sons, who were 15 and 17, denied that their mother was a witch, so jailers tied each boy’s neck and heels, causing nosebleeds. The torture made the two boys confess that both they and their mother were witches. Their younger siblings had heard the screaming of the two boys, and to avoid being tortured they confessed that they were witches, too. Fortunately, the testimony of the children was not allowed in court, because John Proctor made the jailers’ use of torture public. Nevertheless, Martha Carrier and John Proctor were found guilty and hanged.

At the trial by the Inquisition of Joan of Arc by biased judges who knew ahead of time that they would find her guilty, no matter what defense she made, her judges asked her trick question after trick question. One example was this question: “Are you in God’s grace?” If she answered that she was, her answer would be evidence that she was guilty of the sin of pride. If she answered that she was not, her answer would be evidence that God had rejected her. However, she was very intelligent — as well as justifiably defiant — and she answered, “If I am not, may God bring me to it; if I am, may God keep me in it.”

People expect for the justices of the Supreme Court to conduct themselves in a seemly fashion, but sometimes, at least in the past, the justices argue passionately among themselves. While deciding the Dred Scott v. Sandford case in 1857, the justices stood up and argued while waving their hands in the air. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger Taney, had to tell his fellow justices, all of whom were men, “Brothers, this is the Supreme Court of the United States. Take your seats.”

In Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., went to court to face charges stemming from his nonviolent resistent to unjust laws. The judge sentenced him to either pay a $10 fine or go to jail for 14 days. Dr. King wanted to go to jail, knowing that this action would give lots of publicity to his cause, but the segregationist authorities did not want that publicity. Someone paid his fine, although Dr. King protested.

Benjamin Lundy’s abolitionist writings caused many people, and especially slave traders, to hate him. In January 1827, a slave trader by the name of Austin Woolfolk, whom Mr. Lundy had denounced in his abolitionist writings, attacked him in the street and nearly killed him. A trial took place in Maryland, a slave state, and the judge fined Mr. Woolfolk exactly one dollar — then advised him to sue Mr. Lundy for libel.

Thomas Beecham once suffered through some court appearances because of financial difficulties. These appearances were covered by the press. A banker met Mr. Beecham on the street one day and asked him, “Tell me, T.B., do you owe or are you owed a couple of million — I can’t make out which.” Mr. Beecham replied, “Both.”

Country comedian Jerry Clower has many friends, including one man who planted one acre of cotton, came up with seven bales of cotton, and was put on trial for stealing cotton. Asked by the district attorney how he had gotten seven bales of cotton from only one acre, he replied, “I fertilize heavily.”

Lesbian cartoonist Angela Bocage, creator of (Nice Girls Don’t Talk About) Sex, Religion, and Politics, jokes that one of her accomplishments was remembering to wear clothes when she attended her classes at law school.


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