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Tripping through Legal History at the end of 2011

December 31, 2011

1. History, 2. Law

Tripping through Legal History at the end of 2011

Let’s look over our shoulders at what happened on or around this day in legal history …

On December 31, 1775, George Washington ordered recruiting officers to accept free blacks into the army.  Concerning slaves, Washington had a mixed history.  He owned slaves for most of his life, as president he sent money to France to help overcome a slave rebellion, yet in his Last Will & Testament he granted freedom to all of his slaves upon the death of his surviving wife, Martha.

On December 31, 1930, 13-year old Adolphus Busch Orthwein, great-grandson of brewery-founder Adolphus Busch, was Kidnapped.  He was returned the next day unharmed.  No ransom was paid and no person identified as the perpetrator.

On December 31, 1984, Bernhard Goetz, the NYC “subway shooter,” walked into a New Hampshire police precinct to turn himself in.  Nine days earlier he shot four punks (using only five bullets) that tried to rob him on a subway, then fled to NH.  In a classic case of jury nullification, he was acquitted of all charges except carrying a gun without a permit.  He later lost a civil trial and was slammed with a $43 million verdict.  In NRA-inspiring fashion, he said:

“Speed is everything”, Goetz said in a videotaped statement made after he surrendered nine days later. He told police that while still seated, he planned a “pattern of fire” from left to right. He then stood, stepped clear of Canty, drew his revolver, turned back to Canty and fired four shots, one at each man, then fired a fifth shot. At the civil trial years later he said, “I was trying to get as many of them as I could.”  And to Cabey (recipient of the fifth shot and paralyzed by the incident; also the plaintiff in the civil matter), he said “You don’t look so bad, here’s another.”

Today, he lives in NYC again, and installs squirrel houses, feeds squirrels, and performs first aid.  I’m not kidding.

And how fitting since Congress is taking away our light bulbs of choice tomorrow, on December 31, 1879, Tommy Edison did the first public demonstration of his incandescent lightbulb by illuminating a street in Menlo Park, NJ.  Little could he know that a mere 132 years later, his bulb would be replaced with one containing mercury and that lacks a fail-safe when it ceases to function thus resulting in observed smoke and, more rarely, fire.  I’m going back to oil lamps – much more safe.

Let’s cast the calender into next month …

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Declaration went into effect, claimed by all those who have never read it to have freed the slaves.  To wit:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom. [My emphasis]

So, if you’re not in rebellion, you can go right ahead and keep your slaves.  Nice, Abe, real principled approach.  And, full disclosure, Abe is related to my wife through a common grandmother.

On January 3, 1967, strip-club owner and criminal Jack Ruby somehow was allowed to get within sniffing distance of JFK’s assassin,  and promptly filled him with lead before said assassin could share his formula for magic bullets that are able to change trajectories in mid-flight.

On January 4, 1974, President Nixon told the Senate Judiciary Committee to go pound sand when they asked for his Oval-Office tapes.  The refusal didn’t go over too well.

On January 5, 1643, the first divorce was granted in what was to become the United States of America.  It happened in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The dude left his wife, with whom he had two children, and proceeded to breed another woman, with whom he also had two children.  The divorce decree, seemingly transcribed by the Village Idiot, reads as follows:

 “Anne Clarke, beeing deserted by Denis Clarke hir husband, and hee refusing to accompany with hir, she is graunted to bee divorced.”

Thus an industry was born.  Thank you, Denis.  There’s no mention in the record of child support.

On January 14, 1639, the first colonial constitution was written and adopted, entitled, the “Fundamental Orders.”  It’s jurisdiction covered  three Connecticut River towns, Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield.  It’s why Connecticut is known today as “The Constitution State.”  Key elements were that men elect the magistrates and do so with secret ballots, and that government power was limited.

Finally, on January 17, 1977, Gary Gilmore ate lead in Utah, defiantly facing the firing squad tasked with carrying out his execution for murder.  His last words were, “Let’s do it.”  And they did.  Five local cops. It was the first execution in the United States since the reinstatement of the Death Penalty.  As if to underscore his wasted life, his last meal was steak, potatoes, milk, coffee, and a six-pack of beer; he consumed only the milk and coffee.  Man down at 8:07 AM.  His first name at birth was “Faye.”

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

View all posts by Clyde

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