Cape County prosecutor to help law students try 153-year-old murder case

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle has tried a lot of murder cases, sometimes in instances where the crime occurred decades ago.

Trying a 153-year-old murder case, however, is a new one.

On Oct. 15, at Missouri Theatre in Columbia, Mo., Swingle will be trying abolitionist John Brown for the 1856 murder of five pro-slavery settlers living along the banks of Pottawatomie Creek in Franklin County, Kansas.

The fictional trial is being presented to a panel of jurors as this year's project of the Historical and Theatrical Trial Society at University of Missouri School of Law.

Law students pose as witnesses in the trial, but actual federal rules of evidence apply, and Brown, played by a student, will be tried under modern day anti-terrorism laws, meaning Swingle must prove he not only committed the killing but did so with the intent to intimidate citizens.

Witness are given background information to memorize, and the jury will be given real instructions on how to hear the case, said Carolyn Hamilton, a third-year law student and trial director of the society.

Swingle said he "cheated" a bit in preparing for the case -- he read two biographies on John Brown, something he rarely has the option of doing in preparing for an actual jury trial.

In the biographies, Brown admits he led the gang of abolitionists that committed the murders and was proud of having done so, Swingle said.

Swingle has even collected pictures of the murder victims and crime scene to show the jury.

"We're going to try to pull on the heartstrings of the jury members," Swingle said.

Law professor Frank Bowman will be defending Brown, and Swingle pointed out that last year's trial, where Chicago mobster Al Capone was tried for the 1929 St. Valentine's Day massacre, ended in an acquittal.

"So the pressure's on me -- I don't want to give them two acquittals in a row," Swingle said.

This year's historical trial will be the first since the society began in 2007 that will be held in the theater instead of the law school.

"We have to think of how to build a set and find people in the law school who know how to do stage makeup," Hamilton said.


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