Process versus Truth in the
Case of the Lincoln Conspiracy
Michael W. Kauffman
WE ARE ALL FAMILIAR WITH THE TYPICAL CHARGE GIVEN TO a jury as it begins deliberations on the fate of a criminal defendant. “You,” says the judge, “are the sole and exclusive judges of what the truth is.” At their core, criminal courts are supposed to be a search for truth. The process is designed to recognize that people lie, misunderstand, or remember things that did not happen. Cross-examination and opposing testimony expose these human foibles, and in time a form of truth emerges. Only then can the jury reach a just response to the one question laid before it: Has the government proved, by the evidence brought into court, that the prisoner in the dock is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?
The question is extraordinarily narrow, and though it serves the needs of the criminal process, the interests of history and of justice are not the same. As historians, we want to know the whole story, and for this, the courts are not much help. This was especially true at the trial of the so-called Lincoln conspirators.
Almost every book written on the Lincoln assassination is drawn largely from the transcripts of the trial testimony, which are