BY ROBERT HAMMERLE, guest contributor to Hammervision
He stood in the crowd, tears in his eyes, as he stared at the scaffolding containing his client and her other three condemned co-conspirators. Having nobly fought to save her life, he now could only look on in anguish at the magnitude of the injustice. She stood there stoically, as their eyes temporarily met. He nodded as if to let her know that there was at least one friend in the crowd before the rope was placed over her neck and she fell to her doom.
Robert Redford's "The Conspirator" is a story about an historical injustice that took place in the summer of 1865 that resonates to this very day. It is an overtly political film, and no apologies need or should be offered. What happened to Mary Surratt following the inflamed passions of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is likely happening to some poor soul presently confined to Guantanamo Bay, like it or not.
James McAvoy plays Frederick Aiken, a Union Officer who proudly served to suppress the Southern insurrection known as our Civil War. Seeking only to escape the horrors that he witnessed in combat, he longs for a life as a civilian lawyer. But the assassination of President Lincoln changed the fate of our country in general and Mr. Aiken in particular.
Given the horror of five years of war that left over 600,000 Americans dead and untold others wounded and disfigured (1/3 of Mississippi's State budget for 1866 went for artificial limbs), the country demanded both accountability and vengeance. Somebody was going to pay with their lives for this monstrous act, and a wide net was cast in pursuit of the fleeing assassin John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts.
After he was trapped in a barn and subsequently killed by pursuing Union Soldiers, his closest co-conspirators were quickly captured. They not only included David Herod, the man who fled with Booth, but also George Atzerodt and Lewis Powell, Booth's partners in this hideous crime who failed in their attempts to kill both Vice President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward.
Tragically, all of these co-conspirators had one thing in common, namely staying and meeting over several months at a boarding house run by Mary Surratt. Ms. Surratt's son John was also implicated in the assassination, although he, unlike Booth and the others, escaped.
However, in his absence a Surratt had to pay, and that was the unfortunate Ms. Surratt.Rather than give the accused assassins of the President a civilian trial, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline in his best performance in years) ordered them tried before a Military Tribunal. He not only selected the members of the tribunal, but also ordered them to proceed to trial within two months of their arrest. In Ms. Surratt's case, she only met her attorney close to the start of the trial, and her defense was limited in numerous ways, not the least of which was the refusal to allow her to testify in her own behalf.
Into this legal nightmare stepped the aforementioned Frederick Aiken, wonderfully played by James McAvoy. Hating the South for all of the destruction they had visited on our country, he initially wanted nothing to do with Ms. Surratt and her co-defendants. However, he was convinced to take her case by Maryland's redoubtable Senator Reverdy Johnson, after being reminded that a fundamental right contained in our Constitution was that everyone charged with a crime was entitled both a trial and a lawyer.
The great Tom Wilkinson is wonderful as Senator Johnson, a man who knows that Ms. Surratt has no chance unless she is defended by a credible soldier from the North. Wilkinson has never been disappointing in any role, and he certainly delivers here as a laconic figure who knows that while doom is on the horizon for Ms. Surratt, it was important for the legacy of our Constitution for someone to try any way.
What ensues is a shell of a trial where the result was never in doubt. Guilty or not, Ms. Surratt never had a chance. Incredibly, the only evidence presented consisted of little more than the fact that she ran a boarding house where the co-conspirators met, and this hardly qualified as proof beyond a reasonable doubt by any standard.
Robin Wright is wondrous as Ms. Surratt, a stoic daughter of the South who will not betray her son even if it is at the cost of her own life. Despised by the public, you see her as a victim of forces beyond her control. Again, the question was not her guilt or innocence, but whether the country needed accountability in the form of a sacrificial lamb in order to properly heal.
As someone who has spent over 35 years in the criminal courtroom, I must say that the scenes of the trial itself are somewhat stilted compared to other powerful courtroom dramas such as "Inherit the Wind" (1960) and "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959). However, it would be unfair to be too critical, as the whole process was literally fixed, and Director Redford was not about to let anyone forget that central fact.
In addition, McAvoy does a great job embodying a defense lawyer who ends up sacrificing so much for a client who stands for everything he has vehemently opposed his entire adult life. As he becomes increasingly dedicated to the fundamental principle that Ms. Surratt receive a fair trial, he pays an enormous price. His friends doubt him, his fiancé wonders what he has become and he finds himself socially ostracized in a fashion that clearly challenges his future.
On a personal note, I could not help but reflect on the time when I along with my wife, Monica Foster, and others represented Gregory Resnover in a failed attempt to save his life in 1994. Like McAvoy, we had become convinced beyond any legal question that Mr. Resnover had been denied both a fair trial and appeal. (Surratt was not allowed to appeal.) Our unsuccessful attempts to overturn his conviction led us down a path that challenged close relationships with friends in State Government, not to mention a large segment of the public.
As I watched him die a horrific death in the electric chair (a form of execution soon abolished by our Legislature), much like attorney Aiken did Ms. Surratt on the scaffold, I was both emotionally crushed and overwhelmed. I thought then as I do now that when public emotion and political considerations, no matter how well meaning in their own right, trump the Constitution, we all become complicit in the end. No amount of water will wash away the un- Constitutional stain left on Pontius Pilate's hands.
For that very reason we should not stand silently by while our Government under President Obama elects to proceed with Military Tribunals with regard to the Guantanamo Bay inmates. It is worth remembering that when Ms. Surratt's son, John, was subsequently arrested after his mother's execution, Military Tribunals had been eliminated and he was tried to a civilian jury. Failing to reach a verdict, he was set free. Yet what good did it do the poor woman laying cold in the ground?
When attorney Aiken desperately sought a Writ of Habeas Corpus from a Federal Judge following the verdict against Ms. Surratt, you see the Judge asking him, "Do you think she is innocent?" Mr. Aiken responded the same way Monica and I did concerning Mr. Resnover, "I don't really know. But what I do know is that we will never find out if this monstrous injustice is allowed to stand."
To quote the legendary folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary: "When will we ever learn."