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Dominic Daley and James Halligan Trial: 1806

The Trial

On Thursday, April 24, 1806, the courtroom in Northampton, a county seat in western Massachusetts, was so packed that the trial was moved to the town's meeting house. Each defendant had been assigned two lawyers, but they had been given barely 48 hours to prepare a defense. The presiding judges were two of the most distinguished jurists in Massachusetts; a jury of 12 had been agreed upon. In the weeks before the trial, rumors had surfaced throughout the region promising that there would be no end of evidence linking these two to the murder. But in the end, the prosecution's case rested for the most part on a series of witnesses who could at best claim they recognized one or both of the defendants as having been walking along the turnpike near the murder scene on November 9.

There was also a gun dealer from Boston who testified that he had sold two pistols like the presumed murder weapons to a man who "talked like an Irishman"; otherwise he could not identify either of the two defendants as the purchaser. The owner of the inn where Lyon had spent some months in upstate New York testified that Lyon, the night before he had set out on his journey, had shown him some banknotes, two of which were exactly like those found on the person of Daley. Although the judge would instruct the jury to regard the testimony about the guns and the money as "circumstances too remote to bear upon the present case," the fact is the jury had been allowed to hear this. A 13-year-old boy, Laertes Fuller, gave the most damaging testimony. He alone connected the two men to the very locale of the murder and to the horse at about midday on November 9, although even he did not claim to have had a good look at Halligan.

When the prosecution rested its case, Daley and Halligan's lawyers offered no witnesses and the defendants, due to the law then in effect in Massachusetts, could not take the stand. Instead, one of Daley's lawyers, Francis Blake, delivered a long speech attacking the prosecution's case. Occasionally legalistic, sometimes eloquent, occasionally irrelevant, sometimes right-on point, Blake proceeded to argue that in fact there was no proof that Lyon had even been murdered on November 9, the day that Daley and Halligan were said to have been walking along that stretch of highway. The pistols were two of thousands in use at that time. (He said nothing about the banknotes, and the prosecution itself chose to drop that testimony—possibly because it appeared too "neat" to be true.) The case effectively rested on the testimony of the 13-year-old boy. Blake argued that the murder could not possibly have taken place during the brief 15 minutes when the boy said he first saw the two men on foot and then with the horse—during which brief period, moreover, the boy said he heard no gunshot.

No, said Blake, the real reason these two men were being charged was because they were Irishmen. After referring to the Boston gun dealer's identification as that of a "mind infected, in common with others, with that national prejudice which would lead him to prejudge the prisoners because they are Irishmen," Blake rose to even more rhetorical heights:

Pronounce then a verdict against them! Condemn them to a gibbet! Hold out an awful warning of the wretched fugitives from that oppressed and persecuted nation! … That the name of an Irishman is, among us, but another name for a robber and an assassin; that everyman's hand is lifted against him; that when a crime of unexampled atrocity is perpetrated among us, we look around for an Irishman.

But it was to no avail. The trial ended about 11 that evening, and the jurors returned with their verdict about midnight. Both men were found guilty, and the next day they were sentenced to hang.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Dominic Daley and James Halligan Trial: 1806 - The Crime, The Trial, An Execution And An Exoneration, The Issue Of Bias, Suggestions For Further Reading