The United States was ablaze with fury. An unthinkable conspiracy had unfolded; cowardly killers had struck! People braced for the worst, including germ warfare and poisoned water supplies. Clearly the president had to do something, so he came up with the idea of a military tribunal to try the culprits.
Although these chilling words may have a modern ring to them, they actually describe another crisis our country was facing almost a century and a half ago, and they were the prelude to a judgement that has been debated ever since.
President Abraham Lincoln was hardly cold in his tomb when President Andrew Johnson determined not to allow those accused of conspiring to kill him to stand trial in a civilian court. Instead they were compelled by executive order to face a military commission.
A hue and cry arose from some circles as to the legality of such a move. Counsel for the defense claimed that the military had no jurisdiction over civilians, and thus such a trial would be unconstitutional, but in the end it all fell on deaf ears. The president had his way, and eight persons were tried for murder and conspiracy to commit murder...