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George Sweeney Trial: 1806

Sweeney Poisons Wythe And Is Tried For Murder, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: George Wythe Sweeney
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Edmund Randolph and William Wirt
Chief Prosecutor: Philip Norborne Nicholas
Judges: Joseph Prentes and John Tyler, Sr.
Place: Richmond, Virginia
Dates of Trial: September 2-8, 1806
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: Because the law forbade blacks from testifying in the criminal trial of a white man, George Wythe Sweeney was acquitted of the murder of his distinguished granduncle, George Wythe.

George Wythe was born in 1726 in Elizabeth City County, Virginia. He had a long and distinguished career as one of America's founding fathers. Wythe was admitted to practice law before the bar of Virginia's General Court at the early age of 20. In addition to becoming one of Virginia's preeminent lawyers, Wythe was a successful politician. He was elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses several times before the American Revolution and was a member of the 1775 Continental Congress. In 1776, he signed the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

After the Revolution, Wythe served as a judge on Virginia's High Court of Chancery and as the first professor of law at the College of William and Mary. In 1789 he moved to Richmond to live out his final years. Wythe continued to serve on the High Court of Chancery after the turn of the 19th century and was strong and healthy until the age of 80, well past the average life expectancy of the times.

Unfortunately for Wythe, his young grandnephew, George Wythe Sweeney, came to live with him in Richmond. Sweeney had inherited none of Wythe's character. Sweeney lived off Wythe's fortune, and he lost considerable sums of money drinking and gambling. In 1805, Sweeney stole some books from Wythe's personal library and tried to sell them at a public auction. In April 1806, Sweeney forged Wythe's name on six bank checks. The next month, Sweeney became afraid that the forgeries would be discovered. Further, Sweeney knew that he was a beneficiary in Wythe's will, and he was too greedy for his inheritance to let Wythe die naturally. Therefore, Sweeney decided to murder Wythe.

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