Truth is Stranger than Fiction

by Rich Cassidy on January 4, 2016

Review: John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away (Seattle, WA: Bennett & Hastings Publishing 2015) 361 pages, $18.95

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

―Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company 1897).

Certainly, the history of John H. Surratt exemplifies that idea. Who would dare to imagine that a central conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln would escape, flee through Vermont and Montréal to Europe, be arrested while serving as a Papal Zouave in Italy, pull off a dramatic escape, be recaptured in Egypt, be returned to the United States to face trial, benefit from a hung jury and botched effort at a retrial, and end up a free man and the last survivor of the known Lincoln conspirators? It’s too fantastic to be fiction.

But that’s just the bare outline of the facts as recorded in Michael Schein’s book John Surratt: The Lincoln Assassin Who Got Away. There is, in fact, much more drama to the story.

Schein shows conclusively what the Government failed to prove at Surratt’s trial: that Surratt was a central member of the conspiracy to kill President Lincoln. He uses his skills as a lawyer to analyze the record and show how the Government fumbled the prosecution even though it had managed to hang Surratt’s mother, Mary E. Surratt, on far thinner evidence. Why? Because Mary Surrat and other leading conspirators were tried before a military commission beginning in May 1865, less than a month after Lincoln’s death and in the midst of the fury that followed the assassination. Their trials ended June 28th and on July 7, 1865, the condemned, including Mary, were executed.

John Surratt, on the other hand, was not finally apprehended until Nov. 27, 1866. His trial did not occur until the summer of 1867. By that time the seceshes (confederate sympathizers) had regained their footing and played a role on the jury.

The contemporary reader cannot help but contrast the prosecutions of the Lincoln conspirators with recent proceedings against those accused of being jihadist terrorists. In those cases, prosecutions in federal courts have been very successful, while the creaky mechanisms of military commissions have largely failed.

Schein’s book presents evidence suggesting a shocking idea: that Confederate President Jefferson Davis ordered Lincoln killed. Schein’s evidence tends to show that Davis, and his Secretary of State, Judah Benjamin, met with Surratt less than two weeks before the assassination and provided substantial funds to Surratt.

Schein’s book is a great read and important legal and political history. It’s well written and thoroughly documented, with 1364 endnotes. The story comes to life through Schein’s painstaking attention to the details.



The Joys of “To Do” Lists — Wunderlist

by Rich Cassidy on December 14, 2015

21051214.To Do ListOrganization has never come easily to me. I am focused on the substance of my work and it’s hard to find time and energy for getting and staying well-organized.

But not being well organized makes things harder and slower.

Many years ago, I went to a time management seminar and learned a lesson that has served me well, at least whenever I have managed to observe it. The presenter recommended one rule: when something lands on your desk or otherwise comes to your attention, if it’s a one or two minute job, do it right then. If it’s longer or if you can’t deal with it, put it on your “to do” list. Keep one list and put everything on it. Then work your list.

It works. It really works.

For me, a comprehensive To Do list is a huge load off my mind. It relieves me from that otherwise constant worry about what I have forgotten.

My effort is to note the next thing I have to do in each file as I finish each interaction with a file, even if it is just to check back on the status of what someone else has to do.

For years I struggled with paper lists, but that did not work well for me. I need a list I don’t have to spend time rewriting, that is flexible and is accessible all the time, wherever I happen to be.

For a lawyer, one would think that a good practice management system would have such a list and would tie it to your files, calendar, and time keeping system. I expect that such a practice management system exists, but I have never worked with one that does it effectively. Buying a practice management system is usually a firm wide decision, and the systems we have used have never adequately integrated an easy and effective “to do” function.

Over the years, I have tried many stand alone “to do” systems. Recently I’ve given Asana and Trello serious trials. Both have a lot to offer, but I found them too complex for me. I have experimented with Todoist, which I liked, but you really need to buy the premium version to use it effectively. They just offered me a free trial month of  the premium version, so I’ll give it a shot.

At least for the present, my favorite is Wunderlist. It’s on the web, accessible to on my phone, my tablet, my laptop and my home and office desktop computers. I can dictate new items to it. When I tell it to create an item that is due “on Friday,” it assigns it to the appropriate date. I can set advance reminders. I can assign items to members of my team. I can flag items that need priority.  It keeps track of items that are done. And I am only using the free version, I haven’t tried the premium version.

Some reviewers report syncing problems, but after using it for a couple of months, I have not had any.

Perhaps I’ll find a better system tomorrow. But at least for now, I am a Wunderlist fan.



“Young Mr. Lincoln:” No Jackleg Lawyer

November 9, 2015

“Youngmrlincoln“. Via Wikipedia. Last weekend, I watched a classic lawyer movie, Young Mr. Lincoln. The 1939 film, directed by John Ford, stars a young Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln deciding to pursue a career in the law, and trying his first murder case. Lincoln is portrayed as saving the lives of two clients-–a pair of […]

Read the full article →

Why I am a Literalist About the Law

October 23, 2015

Everyone is presumed to know the law. This is a useful — perhaps even an essential — legal fiction. Of course, it is also entirely false. The truth is, no one knows the law. The law is far too massive and far too complex to be held in the mind of any single individual. That […]

Read the full article →

Thank You, Dan Richardson and Thank You, Vermont Bar Association

September 28, 2015

I very much appreciate this award! Thank you,  VBA Immediate Past President Dan Richardson! And thank you, Vermont Bar Association! Rich

Read the full article →

What Does the Future Hold for the American Bar Association?

September 24, 2015

Transitions are occasions for reflection. I’ve been a member of the American Bar Association since I was admitted to the bar in 1979, and since 1999, I’ve served in its House of Delegates. This week, I resigned my seat in the House as the representative of the Vermont Bar Association to focus on my duties […]

Read the full article →

Life is Surprising!

August 13, 2015

Forty-five years ago I was active in Gov. Phil Hoff’s campaign for the U.S. Senate from Vermont. I was in high school.  That summer, I had a job as a bell-hop, that did not start until 3:00 PM. I spent every day from 8:00 AM to 2:45  on the campaign. We lost that race, even though […]

Read the full article →

Thoughts on Becoming President of the Uniform Law Commission

July 28, 2015

This month, I experienced one of the most satisfying events of my professional career. At its 124th Annual Meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia, I was elected to a two year term as President of the Uniform Law Commission. You can find the official press release here. It is a custom that the incoming President offers a few […]

Read the full article →

Obergefell v. Hodges and the Supreme Court as Arbiter of Constitutional Disputes

July 20, 2015

I was overjoyed to learn that the United States Supreme Court had decided in Obergefell v. Hodges,[1] that the states must allow same-sex marriage. I thought of my many friends and family members who are gay, and what this decision means to them. I thought of my late friend, David W. Curtis, an openly gay […]

Read the full article →

The Model Apportionment of Tort Responsibility Act Explained

June 24, 2015

Last week I testified before Rhode Island’s Special Legislative Commission to Study Changes to the Law of Joint Tortfeasors. Legislation about tort law is a notoriously difficult matter. The interests of the plaintiff’s and defendants bar sharply opposed, and fair consensus is hard to find. Still, Rhode Island is apparently engaged in reconsidering its law […]

Read the full article →