The Greatest Trial in American History
For Keith Munson’s money, it’s Aaron Burr's 1807 treason trial
Published in 2022 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine on April 29, 2022
In 2005, Keith Munson created a popular course through Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Furman University called “Great Trials in History.” For two hours a week over 10 weeks, he and other attorneys at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice would take turns lecturing on important trials.
“My pitch to associates with little trial experience was, ‘This is a great opportunity to get in front of a jury-sized group of strangers and make a presentation,’” says Munson, now at Rimon.
A colleague who had taken a similar course in Connecticut suggested Munson start his own version back home. Initially, he pilfered the trial choices from the earlier course, “but there were a few people who put their own together,” he recalls, “like the person who did the trial of Jesus or the baseball fan who did the Black Sox scandal.” Others have lectured on the Boston Massacre (1770), Sam Sheppard (1954), the Rosenbergs (1951) and OJ Simpson (1994). But the one Munson always chose to lead is the treason trial of Aaron Burr.
“Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical ends in 1804, when Burr shoots Hamilton, but the trial was 1807,” he explains. In between, Burr and Jefferson grew to hate each other, despite being running mates, and Jefferson ditched Burr in his second term. Out of a job in 1805, “Burr lays the groundwork for a revolution among everybody west of the Appalachian Mountains—from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi—saying, ‘These Easterners take all your money, tax your whiskey and you never see anything from them,’” Munson says. Then Burr and company planned to seize an armory and bank to help fund and arm the revolution. “Jefferson gets wind and calls the governor of Ohio to essentially send a militia to capture them. The governor arrests everybody, but Burr gets away, and Jefferson finally chases him down in Arkansas and drags him back to D.C. to try him.”
The big names involved in the trial included George Hay, William Wirt and Charles Lee for the prosecution; and Luther Martin, Edmund Randolph and John Wickham for the defense. “Burr was also a very good lawyer and questioned a lot of the witnesses on cross himself,” Munson adds.
“It gets somehow arranged that John Marshall, who was a distant cousin of Jefferson’s and chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, ends up being the judge for this case,” he says. “Throughout the trial, Jefferson would get reports on how it was going and he would write letters to Hay and tell him how to prosecute. I mean, this is the president telling the prosecutor, ‘Tomorrow at the trial you need to do X.’ Ultimately, Jefferson wanted to control the trial. But not surprisingly, a country that was built out of treason led to a law that was pretty hard to break. You had to have both the conspiracy to wage war and actual acts of engaging in war, and those acts had to be in the district where he was being tried.”
Despite 133 witnesses testifying that Burr colluded, the prosecution had no evidence of Burr levying war because the governor had stopped them in the act. “So Marshall gives the jury a day’s worth of instructions,” Munson continues. “Essentially, he won’t let them find Burr guilty unless they make a couple of very direct findings that there was no evidence of. The jury wasn’t particularly happy about being boxed in, so their verdict said, ‘We the jury say that Aaron Burr is not proved guilty.’ They refuse to say, ‘We find him not guilty.’ They kind of let their displeasure be known. And Burr was pissed about the verdict. He argued and tried to get Marshall to get them to come back with a verdict that said not guilty, but Marshall wouldn’t do it.”
What makes this trial his favorite? “The historical underpinnings are as interesting as the shenanigans that happened in the trial—all covered in a bubble of being extremely and profoundly important from a macro level,” Munson says. “With a lot of trials, some are historically very interesting but what actually happens in the trial may not be. Or the shenanigans in the trial are interesting, but from a kind of macro historic viewpoint, not all that significant. This has both.”