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John Brown Trial: 1859

Virginia Tries Brown For Treason

When news of Harpers Ferry reached Richmond, Henry A. Wise, the politically ambitious governor, had an important decision to make. Under the division of power that existed between state and federal governments before the Civil War, it was Wise's prerogative to decide whether Brown would be tried in a Virginia court for violating the laws of the commonwealth or turned over to the national authorities for prosecution in the federal courts. The Virginia court at Charles Town, where a grand jury was already in session, would be quicker. A federal court, however, would not be as open to charges of Southern bias. Whether out of fear that a mob would lynch Brown if he were not tried quickly, or out of a desire to score political prestige for himself and Virginia, Governor Wise decided to proceed with a state trial.

It fell to Andrew Hunter, the district attorney for Charles Town, to be the prosecutor. Hunter shared Governor Wise's desire to prosecute Brown quickly. To defend Brown, a magistrate appointed Lawson Botts, a local Virginia attorney, and Thomas C. Green, an attorney who was also the mayor of Charles Town. From his prison cell, Brown wrote his abolitionist allies for outside legal counsel.

Judge Richard Parker, justice of the circuit court for the town of Charles Town, was also an advocate of speedy justice. Judge Parker's grand jury returned an indictment against Brown within 24 hours. Further, Judge Parker denied Botts' and Green's request that the trial be delayed until Brown could recover from injuries sustained when the troops stormed the arsenal. As a result, when Brown's trial began on October 27, he attended the proceedings lying in a cot, nursing his wounds.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882John Brown Trial: 1859 - Brown Raises Sword Of Abolition, Virginia Tries Brown For Treason, Brown's Lawyers Search For A Defense