The story of an American Hero – Tried as a Criminal
Many people in our have mixed feelings about our criminal justice system—in particular, trials by jury. Some feel that people beat charges on technicalities while others point to innocent defendants that are incarcerated for crimes they never committed. We are hopeful that the worst case scenarios occur infrequently, maybe rarely, as compared to the standard law and order we want to believe in.
But there are many reasons why the jury system serves a function in our society beyond guilty or not guilty. The trial of Susan B. Anthony stands as a glorious reminder that a much larger stage is at play when the government decides to “move forward” on a defendant.
June 17, 1873
On this day, June 17, 1873 [141-years-ago], a defiant personality walked the steps onto Canandaigua Courthouse draped in a bonnet with blue silk and a draped veil.
Susan B. Anthony was being charged by the prosecution with “Knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully voting for a member of Congress without having a lawful right to vote—specifically…’being then and there a person of the female sex’.” The maximum penalty was $500 dollars or three years in prisonment.
Prior to her trial, Anthony made a total fiasco out of her arrest and the charges that were filed afterwards. Her prosecution set fire to an already motivated and passionate speaker. She engaged the National Woman’s Suffrage Association with her mission and let everyone know the fundamental wrong inherent in the law itself.
Bringing more attention to the issue she devoted herself to fighting, the trial brought former president Millard Fillmore from his Buffalo law office as well as Judge Ward Hunt to sit in the courtroom as spectators.
District Attorney Richard Crowley headed the prosecution against Anthony. On the 17th, he made his opening statement and brought forth half a dozen witnesses to support the charges.
Denied of her right to testify
When it was Anthony’s turn to testify on her own behalf, District Attorney Crowley objected and claimed to the judge that “She is not competent as a witness on her own behalf.” The judge sustained the objection—preventing Anthony from testifying in her own defense.
What would seem a total outrage by today’s standard, the presiding judge read a statement effectively giving his own opinion on the trial after both sides has rested their cases. In essence, the judge read out loud that the Fourteenth Amendment gives no right to a woman to vote. The judges opinion was that Anthony “knowingly” cast an illegal vote”. He finished with: “Upon this evidence I suppose there is no question for the jury and that the jury should be directed to find a verdict of guilty.”
The next day, the judge asked Anthony if she had anything to say prior to her sentencing. What came next was a searing dialogue between a very strong-willed woman and a judge with little control over her defiance.
As soon as Anthony sat down (after being asked several times by the judge while she went into her blasting the system that judged her), she was immediately asked to stand up again for his sentence.
The court ordered Anthony to pay the costs of the prosecution’s case against her along with $100 dollars. In protest, Anthony declared on the spot that she will not pay the fine.
The judge made it a point however, to make sure that no jail would be imposed on Anthony until she paid the fine…effectively preventing the case from being appealed.
Anthony never paid her fine. She made 3,000 copies of the trial transcript and send copies to activists and public libraries as far as she could send them.
Susan B. Anthony’s Legacy
To measure the value of that trial would be impossible in that it is without question that woman in the United States owed Anthony a great honor for her sacrifice and ridicule. In the same vein, it is difficult to measure the value of the cases that go before juries today. Every morning and afternoon in our courthouses we are testing and re-testing the value of some laws and our moral stance as to what we find criminal behavior or excusable conduct.
This constant battle in the courtrooms will continue with respect to “victimless” crimes such as drug possession charges, protesting in public places, as well as resisting arrest offenses where the defendant was being harassed or unlawfully detained.
After 141 years, many long-held beliefs of our ancestors were fought in a court of law as the country slowly began questioning the old-ways.
Today, Susan B. Anthony is a hero in our brave history. At the time, however, her stance was not a popular one. It was so unpopular in fact, that she was tried as a criminal. It begs the question then, what will the future think of us after 141 years have passed? What popular beliefs do we hold now that will be outdated and shocking to the future generates?