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Boston Massacre Trials: 1770

The Redcoats Are Indicted

That very night, two justices of the peace went to the council chamber and spent the next several hours calling witnesses to be examined. By morning, Captain Preston and his eight men had been incarcerated. A week later, a grand jury was sworn in, and, at the request of Attorney General Jonathan Sewall, indictments were promptly handed down.

But Sewall, a loyalist, busied himself with legal affairs out of town, leaving the prosecution of the soldiers to whomever the royal court appointed. The disappointing choice was another loyalist, Samuel Quincy, the colony's solicitor general. To strengthen the prosecution, at a town meeting, radicals led by Samuel Adams, persuaded Boston selectmen and citizens to pay prosecution expenses, bringing in the very successful lawyer Robert Treat Paine.

The choice of loyalist Robert Auchmuty to serve as the senior counsel for Captain Preston was no surprise, but the other two attorneys who agreed to act for the defense were: Josiah Quincy, Jr. (brother of the prosecutor Samuel Quincy), a fiery radical; John Adams, the cousin of Samuel Adams and just as offended as he by the presence of the king's troops in Boston. Both Quincy and Adams had participated in the funeral procession for four of the men the soldiers were accused of killing. For the trial of the soldiers, Auchmuty dropped out, and Adams became senior counsel, with Samuel Salter Blowers as junior counsel.

The trials were delayed more than once, providing a long period for tempers to cool. The radicals, thwarted in their efforts to obtain an immediate trial, tried to convict the troops in the press.

The decision on whether to hold one trial or two was not announced until the last minute. The troops wanted to be tried with Captain Preston. They believed separate trials would lessen their chances of acquittal, particularly if Preston were tried first and found not guilty, which would indicate that his men bore the responsibility for firing without orders.

Additionally, if the Captain and his men were tried together, the prosecution would have a difficult case in proving that a bullet from one specific gun, fired by one specific soldier had hit one specific victim. Furthermore, the troops knew that if the Crown could prove that Preston had given the order to fire, the greater share of responsibility and guilt would be his.

Probably to the disappointment of the troops, it was decided there would be two separate trials: the first for Captain Preston, the second for the troops.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Boston Massacre Trials: 1770 - Snowballs, Then Musket Balls Fly, The Redcoats Are Indicted, Captain Preston's Trial