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Aaron Burr Trial

Definition Of An Overt Act Debated

Burr's defense counsel countered Wirt's impressive oratory by keeping the focus of attention on the prosecution's strained interpretation on what constituted an "overt act." After all, the only act of the revolt remotely "overt" had been the preparations at Blennerhassett's island during which Burr had not been present.

Therefore, Botts retorted:

Acts on the island were not acts of war; no war could be found in Mississippi or Kentucky. There was no bloody battle. There was no bloody war. The energy of . . . [the] government prevented that tragical consequence.

On 31 August, Marshall made a lengthy ruling on the arguments presented by both sides, later turning the tide in favor of Burr. Marshall held that if the prosecution had proven with two witnesses that Burr had "procured" or caused the men and material to assemble on the island to launch a revolt, then the necessary overt act could be established. The prosecution had not done this, however. All they had presented at trial was testimony that would "confirm" or "corroborate" such eyewitnesses, but not any eyewitnesses themselves. Therefore, the prosecution's evidence was inadmissible and the jury had to ignore it.

Faced with Marshall's ruling, the jury had no choice. On 1 September, the jury acquitted Burr when it gave its somewhat backhanded verdict that "We of the jury say that Aaron Burr is not proved to be guilty under this indictment by any evidence submitted to us."

Although he was acquitted, the press and public still considered Burr a traitor and his political career was ruined. Burr went to Europe for several years, staying one step ahead of moneylenders who financed his lifestyle, and finally returned to the United States in 1812. He lived out the rest of his life in obscurity, dying a broken man in 1836.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Aaron Burr Trial - Significance, Aaron Burr's Roller-coaster Career, Burr Tried Before Chief Justice Marshall