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Dakota Conflict Trials: 1862

Were The Trials Fair?

Then and ever since, the fairness of the trials has been questioned. In addition to concerns about the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the convictions; the rapidity of the trials; and the denial of legal counsel, commission members have been suspected of being prejudiced against the defendants. At the very least there appeared to be conflicts of interest. The commission members—though believed to be men of integrity—were also military men whose troops had recently been under attack by the very men whose cases they were judging.

Critics of the trials believe that the commission wrongly treated the defendants as common criminals rather than as the legitimate belligerents of a sovereign power. They also contend that the trials should have been conducted in state courts using normal rules of criminal procedure rather than by military commission. Finally, many critics point out that the unsophisticated prisoners often did not understand the nature of the proceedings and, as a result, made damaging statements that sealed their convictions.

Colonel Sibley viewed summary trials by a commission as necessary to avoid vigilante justice by angry mobs of Minnesotans. Even with the swiftness of the trials, mob violence was a real concern: Angry white settlers attacked the 303 condemned prisoners in the southwestern Minnesota town of New Ulm as they were being transported to a prison camp after their trials to await execution. A month later, soldiers guarding the prisoners foiled a planned attack of the prison camp by several hundred armed local citizens.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Dakota Conflict Trials: 1862 - Military Commission Appointed To Try Dakota Warriors, Were The Trials Fair?, President Lincoln Reviews The Dakota Cases