Conspirator (2010)





Director:     Robert Redford.

Starring:     Evan Rachel Wood (Anna Surratt),  James McAvoy (Frederick Aiken),  Alexis Bledel (Sarah Weston),  Robin Wright (Mary Surratt),  Justin Long (Nicholas Baker),  Norman Reedus (Lewis Payne),  Tom Wilkinson (Reverdy Johnson),  Kevin Kline (Edwin Stanton),  Jonathan Groff (Louis Weichmann),  Toby Kebbell (John Wilkes Booth),  Danny Huston (Joseph Holt),  Johnny Simmons (John Surratt),  Stephen Root (John Lloyd),  James Badge Dale (William Hamilton),  Colm Meaney (David Hunter).

southerner Mary Surratt is accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth and others to kill the president, vice-president and  the secretary of state 



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the film.

John Wilkes Booth shoots President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head, while he is with his wife watching a play at Ford's Theater.  The president is taken across the street to a house where he dies.  Booth is involved with several co-conspirators.  While Booth is killing Lincoln, Lewis Powell tries to kill the Secretary of State William H. Steward.  He stabs the secretary numerous times, but Steward is protected from death by his neck brace and other protective gear on his body following a recent accident.  Co-conspirator George Andreas Atzerodt was supposed to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson, but he lost his nerve and didn't make the attempt.  And lastly, David Harold helped Lewis Powell get to the home of the Secretary of State and then rendezvoused with Booth outside of Washington, D.C. They then went to Surrattsville where they picked up some weapons, supposedly stashed there by Mary Surratt. 

Mary Surrat was arrested as a co-conspirator in the conspiracy.  She was the mother of John H. Surrrat, Jr. who was also thought to be a co-conspirator.   John Surratt was not arrested because he had left Washington, D.C. two weeks before the assassination. 

Two lawyers, Frederick Aiken and John Clampitt presented most of Surratt's legal defense.  But the legal team was at a disadvantage from the start.  Mary was denied a civilian.  Rather she had to go before a military tribunal.  All the judges on the tribunal were Union officers.  In the film it is shown that most of the defense attorney's (they only used one of the lawyers) objections were not sustained, but the judge always seem to side with the prosecutor.  It was obvious from the start that the court was very concerned with the political environment surrounding the assassination of Lincoln. 

In summing up the defense argument, the defense lawyer Frederick Aiken said that the evidence against their client came from just two witnesses: John Lloyd and Louis Weichmann (both boarders at Mary Surratt's boarding house).  The defense argued that Loyd and Weichmann were both unreliable witnesses.  There were also complains during the trial that the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, used his power and influence to affect the witnesses' testimony. 

The judges decided that Mary was guilty, but they opted for a punishment of life in prison rather than death by hanging.  In the film Edwin Stanton interferes with the verdict and has Mary sentenced to death. 

Frederick searches for a judge to ask for a re-trial in a civilian court for Mary.  Aiken got a judge to issue a writ of habeas corpus, saying that the military tribunal had no jurisdiction over his client.  Aiken tells the good news to Mary and her daughter, but Andrew Johnson canceled the writ.  She was hung along with Lewis Powell, George Atzerodt and David Harold.  The sentence was carried out July 7, 1865. 

The director Robert Redford was right in focusing on all the injustices visited upon Mary that almost guaranteed from the start that she would be hanged.  America is not good with civil liberties during great times of public grief.  Often public hysteria virtually sweeps civil liberties away.  Like the lawyer says, the judges were just making up the law as they went along.  Tremendous public pressure is put on officials and judges to bring in a guilty verdict. 

So in a just world, Mary Surratt would probably never have been hung because she did not receive a fair trial.  The government did everything it could to make sure Mary was convicted and hanged.  She would have gotten a civilian trial and she probably would have gone free because her son was let go when he came to trial in a civilian court.  There were both northerners and southerners on the jury and they could not reach an agreement on the verdict.  John Surratt Jr. was freed. 

Frederick Aiken left the law as a profession.


Very good film.  The whole family enjoyed it.  James McAvoy (as defense lawyer Frederick Aiken) was very good, as was Robin Wright (as Mary Surratt).  The film shows a fairly common occurrence in the United States: in times of crises or tragedies or both, civil liberties pretty much go out the window and the accused are most likely not to receive a fair trial.  This is shown in the unfair treatment of the accused Mary Surrat, who probably would have been let go if she had been tried in a civilian court, rather than a military tribunal.  Civil liberties are cancelled for the accused during a crisis and many conservatives would justify this, but I don't think it's right to railroad an accused just because of a lot of citizens lose their senses in a crisis.  If a person is guilty, they probably will be found guilty in a civilian court.  They should not be tried by military tribunals. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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