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Boston Massacre Trials: 1770

Reasonable Doubt

Richard Palmes testified that he had had his hand on Preston's shoulder just as the order to fire was given. At the time, the two men were in front of the troops. Even at that distance, Palmes could not be sure whether Preston or someone else had given the order. Palmes' testimony, even with its measure of ambiguity, threw a strong element of "reasonable doubt" on the Crown's case.

Another major witness for the defense was Andrew (no last name recorded). He was a slave, but he was always referred to as the "Negro servant" of merchant Oliver Wendell, a Son of Liberty, who testified emphatically to Andrew's integrity. In meticulous, coherent detail, Andrew described the explosive scene on March 5—the taunts, the threats, the objects thrown (mostly snowballs), the clash of stick against bayonet. Andrew also testified that the voice that gave the order to fire was different from the other voices calling out and he was sure the voice had come from beyond Preston.

When John Gillespie took the stand, he testified about an event that occurred at least two hours before the Massacre. He spoke of seeing a group of townspeople carrying swords, sticks, and clubs, coming from the South End. The tone of Gillespie's testimony implied a "plot" to expel the troops from Boston. Adams was opposed to such testimony and was angry with Josiah Quincy, who had prepared the witnesses. He feared attacking Boston's reputation would backfire on the defendant, angering a jury to a guilty verdict or inciting a mob to lynching. Adams threatened to withdraw from the case if any further evidence of that nature was introduced.

In making closing arguments, defense attorney Adams spoke first. He said, "Self-defence [sic] is the primary canon of the law of nature," and he explained how a homicide was justifiable under common law when an assaulted man had nowhere to retreat. Carefully reviewing the evidence, Adams ruthlessly demolished the Crown's weakly presented case. Instead of attacking the Crown's witnesses, he deftly wove parts of their testimony into his arguments and dismissed as honest mistakes those that he couldn't use.

In his summation for the prosecution, Paine, in an effort to dismiss the notion of self-defense introduced by Adams, pointed out that defense witness Palmes was standing in front of the soldiers' muskets. "Would he place himself before a party of soldiers and risque his life at the muzzles of their guns," Paine reasoned, "when he thought them under a necessity of firing to defend their life?"

In the judges' charge to the jury, the main points the jurors had to consider were: Whether the soldiers' party constituted an unlawful assembly? Whether that party was assaulted? Whether the crowd constituted an unlawful assembly? Whether Preston ordered the loading of the muskets and, if so, why? Was this a defensive action? And, most important, did Preston give the order to fire? Finally, in a move that favored the defense, the judges reminded the jury that self-defense was a law of nature.

The court adjourned at 5:00 P.M. on Monday. By 8:00 A.M. on Tuesday, the jury had reached a verdict. Preston was found not guilty.

Additional topics

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