Let us consider the death of 18-year-old college student Charley Austin. Young Charley went out one day and bought a club, with the intention of using it to “chastise” that mean old attorney, Thomas Selfridge, who had insulted Charley’s father.
Perhaps young Charley had overheard one of his father’s numerous statements about hiring some thugs to take care of Mr. Selfridge. Perhaps Charley thought that he would earn brownie points with his tough businessman father by saving the cost of hired thugs, and doing in Mr. Selfridge on his own.
We will never know, because no one got the chance to ask Charley. On August 4, Mr. Selfridge went out as usual at midday, for errands and some lunch. At his usual lunch stop, he encountered Charley. Charley’s club crushed Mr. Selfridge’s hat, and inflicted a deep scalp wound. Mr. Selfridge, having a concealed carry pistol in his pocket, drew it out and fired a single shot into Charley’s chest.
Witnesses said that Charley continued to flail with his club while Mr. Selfridge tried to parry the blows and then threw his pistol at Charley’s head. Charley finally succumbed to internal bleeding and loss of lung function, and toppled over and died.
Charley’s outrage at Mr. Selfridge was driven by a newspaper notice published by Mr. Selfridge which stated that Charley’s father was “a coward, a liar and a scoundrel.” Mr. Selfridge published the notice after Charley’s father privately acknowledged that his own public statements about Mr. Selfridge being a bad attorney, who went out soliciting cases to litigate, were false, but then refused Mr. Selfridge’s demand for a public acknowledgement of that falsity.
Charley’s father, Mr. Austin, was a businessman and a Republican Party political activist. Mr. Selfridge had sued Mr. Austin on behalf of a caterer, who had supplied the food and drink for a large Republican Party event, on Mr. Austin’s guarantee that he would pay for the stuff, based on the number of attendees at the function. No one complained about the quality or quantity of the caterer’s supplies. But after the event, Mr. Austin “trumped” the caterer by refusing to pay. The Caterer hired Mr. Selfridge to sue. The case settled before trial.
Mr. Austin, angry at being sued and exposed as a businessman who didn’t pay his debts, spoke out against Mr. Selfridge and his law practice. When Mr. Selfridge demanded correction of Mr. Austin’s clearly false statements, Mr. Austin told friends privately that he had lied about Mr. Selfridge but told people that Mr. Selfridge should shut up about it. When Mr. Selfridge did not shut up, Mr. Austin announced that he would hire some men to shut him up. And then Charley Austin decided to act for his father.
Understandably angry at the loss of his son, Mr. Austin wanted Mr. Selfridge prosecuted for murder. As a Republican power broker, he had some influence. But he was only able to get a grand jury to indict Mr. Selfridge for manslaughter, not murder. The jury trial started in late December. In his opening statement, the prosecutor, also a Republican, said that the evidence would include proof of Mr. Selfridge’s malice against the Austins.
One of the defense attorneys jumped to object. He argued that malice was an element of a charge of murder, but not of manslaughter, and thus any evidence of malice would be irrelevant to the issues in the case. Judge Parker, also a Republican, ruled in favor of the prosecution, and allowed the malice evidence in. But he also allowed the defense to put on evidence of the roots of any claimed malice, including Mr. Austin’s refusal to pay the caterer, and subsequent lies about Mr. Selfridge.
The jury heard three days of testimony and argument, and took less than a day of deliberation to find Mr. Selfridge not guilty. The case leaves us with some lessons. The first may be that bragging about hiring thugs around teenagers eager to prove themselves might be a bad idea. Procedurally, we can’t be surprised that a political power broker can get people targeted for prosecution, for his own private grudges. This was also a feature of the Nixon administration.
We should be more concerned that a judge would be so eager to admit evidence against a defendant, when it was clear that the evidence was irrelevant to the charged offense. We should be upset when a judge (ALL of whom are human, with their own feelings, interests and ambitions) appears to make rulings more in line with political or social preferences than with the law. As many were upset when another Republican judge stopped just short of praising the Korean liquor store owner who shot Latisha Harlins in the back of the head, as she walked away from the store counter empty handed.
As we move toward laws allowing an even greater suffusion of firearms throughout every level of society, we should be horrified at the thought of angry young men being taught that violence is a proper way to oppose speech.
As we move toward laws allowing an even greater suffusion of firearms throughout every level of society, we should be horrified at the thought of angry young men being taught that violence is a proper way to oppose speech. We can argue about whether it is worse when the speech the violence seeks to silence is true.
We are about to engage in a national debate about how our courts will function for decades to come. We are being asked to consider appointing a Supreme Court justice from a family of Republican Party fixers, who is on record as believing that the 1st Amendment protects the religious rights of one religion to restrict the rights of people of other religious traditions, and who inflates his own charitable activities, to shape his image as less regressive than his policies are.
A man who believes society will benefit from more people carrying and using guns may be a judge inviting more deaths of young men like Charley Austin. A man who believes that some religious beliefs are superior to others may be a judge inviting just the religious strife our founding fathers worked so hard to eliminate.
Another lesson we can take from the Selfridge prosecution is that these issues are not simply a product of our time. The jury foreman at the Selfridge trial was named Paul Revere. Most people know him for a late night ride he took, in 1775. But he was also a businessman, and a citizen who got called for jury duty, and served, in 1806, when Mr. Selfridge was tried, and acquitted.
Another note of interest, the closing arguments were made on December 25, 1806, Christmas Day, and the jury verdict returned on December 26. Back in the first few decades of our democratic experiment, separating government business, like court activity, from private religious belief was not considered to be a “war on Christmas.”