Levi Weeks Trial: 1800
A Two-day Trial
The trial took two days, lasting until late at night, an unusual length and schedule for the time. During the proceedings, an angry mob could be heard outside the courthouse chanting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" The prosecutor, future New York mayor and congressman Cadwallader Colden, had to rely on circumstantial evidence to try to prove that Weeks had had means, motive, and opportunity to murder Sands. He put on witnesses to show that Weeks and Sands had had a sexual relationship; that he had promised to marry her; that he had left the boarding house with her the night she was killed; and that his brother's sleigh had been identified at the crime scene. But he could not produce any direct evidence in support of any of these things.
The defense, on the other hand, claimed that the public outcry surrounding the crime had prejudiced the case. Weeks's attorneys took pains to show that one of the prosecution's star witnesses, boarder Richard David Croucher, had had run-ins with Weeks and was perhaps envious of Sands's affection for the young carpenter. Croucher had been one of Levi's most outspoken persecutors both before and after the discovery of Weeks's body. The defense team also found witnesses who swore that Levi had spent the whole evening with Ezra and others, and that he thus could not have been at the well. Still other witnesses testified that Ezra's sleigh had never gone out that night.
The testimony ended at two in the morning. Chief Judge John Lansing—who was himself to disappear mysteriously from the New York streets one night 30 years later, never to be seen again—instructed the jury that the case against Levi Weeks was purely circumstantial, but he did not direct a verdict. As things turned out, he did not need to: the jurors took only five minutes to acquit Weeks.
The Weeks case stirred up a storm of controversy that continued to swirl for decades, and Lansing drew strong criticism for his jury instructions. The case was a cause celdbre of the day, especially since it was a key election year and Hamilton and Burr were engaged in a major political battle with each other. But in a larger sense the Weeks trial, with its sexual scandal and grisly murder, set the stage for chronic urban violence that would only come to full flower in America more than a century later.
—Buckner F. Melton, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
John D. Lawsoni, ed. American State Trials. Vol. 1. St. Louis: F. H. Thomas Law book Co., 1914.
Liva Baker, "The Defense of Levi Weeks." American Bar Association Journal, 63 (June 1977): 818.