Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “Lesson of the Czolgosz Trial”
Date of publication: 31 October 1901
Volume number: 73
Issue number: 1896
|“Lesson of the Czolgosz Trial.” Nation 31 Oct. 1901 v73n1896: pp. 332-33.|
|Leon Czolgosz (trial: personal response); Leon Czolgosz (trial: comparison); Leon Czolgosz (trial: compared with Bissert trial).|
|George Bissert; Leon Czolgosz; Thomas J. Diamond; Edward G. Glennon; Benjamin B. Odell, Jr.; John J. Scannell; James H. Webb.|
Lesson of the Czolgosz Trial
Before the memory of the wretched Czolgosz rots
with his body, it behooves the American people, and especially citizens of New
York, to lay to heart the true lesson of his trial and punishment. The vindication
of justice in his person has been in every way creditable to the bench and bar
of this State. He was swiftly brought to trial. His prosecution was pushed without
clamor or malice; the solemn duty of seeing that he enjoyed all his legal rights
was undertaken by two members of the Buffalo bar of the highest standing; there
was no unseemly wrangling in court; the condemned man was held in close confinement
and executed without any sensational display. The whole affair shows what justice
is when it is most impressive. It is as if the law, embodied in its sworn ministers
in New York, had lifted the sword without passion, and let it fall with the
sure and undelayed stroke necessary to make the process of the courts appear
dignified, impartial, and as just and unescapable as the finger of God.
From that admirable instance of the march of justice in New York, turn to the chaotic exhibition of courts at cross purposes, and the tricky employment of technicalities to stay the punishment of public criminals, which we have seen going on in this State almost at the same time. Czolgosz died within six weeks of his victim; but Bissert was convicted only to have his sentence indefinitely stayed; Diamond was indicted only to have his trial delayed and transferred; Scannell gets off for the present on a technicality; Glennon’s case is held up on some preliminary plea which a judge is supposed to have been passing upon for many weeks. Why the difference? Do the lawyers in Buffalo know nothing about  the artifices of criminal defense? Could they not travel the State over to get a stay, as Bissert’s lawyers did; take an appeal simply for the purpose of delay, or contrive to throw Czolgosz’s case into the Federal courts? A New Jersey murderer was kept from the gallows for two years after conviction by successive appeals to the Supreme Court of the United States. One from the State of Washington waited for punishment eight years after his crime. A St. Louis murderer was convicted in 1875; his conviction was upheld in repeated decisions by the Supreme Court of Missouri, but in 1882 was declared invalid by the Supreme Court of the United States.
Such miscarriages of justice are, unhappily, getting to be the rule in the United States. The Czolgosz trial was as exception. Our general looseness and slackness in criminal procedure are undoubtedly on the increase, as Mr. J. H. Webb asserts in his review of the changes of two centuries in American criminal law, and tend, as he confesses, to “encourage a contempt for the law.” And the American Law Review, speaking of the lamentable practice of indefinitely postponing the punishment of notorious criminals, by an abuse of the right of appeal, said that some of the processes of our courts would “provoke laughter and derision” if they were recounted to an English lawyer, trained in the common law.
It is obvious that it was not the state of the law, but the state of public opinion, which prevented, in the case of Czolgosz, any of the grievous delays and thwartings of justice which we see on every hand. His lawyers could, but would not, dared not, apply for stays and certificates and changes of venue. Judges could, but would not, dared not, stay the execution of sentence upon the President’s assassin. His case, too, might have been taken, as Bissert’s was, by transparent jugglery, into the Federal courts. Why was none of these things done? Because an alert, a vigilant, a jealous public opinion was behind the trial and behind the court. The people wanted only justice on a miscreant, but they wanted it, wanted it speedily and surely. They got it; and it is safe to say that if an equally aroused and watchful public opinion pressed upon all our courts at all times, we should not see justice baffled so often as we do. The Buffalo bar, with a fine sense of its own responsibility, secured the appointment of two ex-judges as counsel for Czolgosz. If the New York bar were as sensitive concerning its own reputation, it would in similar ways bring its influence to bear to make the process of our courts in this city more orderly and less scandalous. By suitable action the bar could make it impossible for a lawyer to undertake such legal chicanery as was practised in the Bissert case, and still retain an honorable standing among his brethren.
We are not arguing for a restriction of the right of appeal. That subject was debated before the American Bar Association a few years ago, and although a Justice of the Supreme Court urged a limitation of appeals in criminal cases, the prevailing sentiment was that they should not be substantially abridged. There is, however, reason in the demand that the laws of this State should be so amended as to put an end to abuses like those we have had to witness this year in the Bissert case. If a judge 400 miles from New York is not restrained by propriety, he ought to be by statute, from interfering with the orderly processes of the courts in the county of New York. If the law permits such an anomaly as the transfer of the trial of an indicted captain of the New York police to Albany, then the law ought to be changed, unless it wishes to be regarded as “a ass.” This whole subject is one which might worthily engage the attention of so practical a Governor as Mr. Odell. We hope that he will recommend to the Legislature such amendments of the code of procedure as may be needful to prevent New York justice from being brought into contempt. Who can deny that both the punitive and the deterrent effects of the execution of Czolgosz illustrate the real intent of the law, just as the delays, the impediments, the legal sparring for time, resorted to by the Tammany lawyers in behalf of their imperilled scoundrels, represent a perversion and defeat of the will of the people as expressed in the criminal code? We must amend our laws when necessary, and so far as feasible; but we must amend our manners, too, and create about bench and bar alike such an atmosphere of public opinion, itself charged with the true spirit of justice, as shall make a trial like that of Czolgosz the normal thing, instead of, as now, only a shining example.