In Robert Redford’s new movie, The Conspirator, a cabinet official decides that what he thinks can assure the stability of the nation is more important that the individual liberties afforded by the Constitution of that nation. Thus, he pursues military tribunals instead of civilian trials for those he determines are responsible for the risks to stability to his beloved country.
Even Redford acknowledges the parallels between the case of Mary Surratt, convicted and hanged as part of the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln, and the use of military tribunals as started by the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11. At a screening hosted by Time last night, he told the audience, “There it is in the historical record. Are we going to learn from it, or are we going to do what we’ve always done?”
The facts of the Surratt case, as recounted in the movie, aren’t new to historians. Mary Surratt owned a D.C.-boarding house, where she lived with her son, John — who, by all accounts, brought John Wilkes Booth and others to the home to conspire to kidnap then-President Lincoln. That turned into a plan to assassinate Lincoln and other officials. On the night of April 14, 1865, Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre while others were sent to target Secretary of State William Seward, General Ulysses S. Grant and Vice President Andrew Johnson.
John Surratt was the only conspirator not captured within days of the assassination; Union troops who investigated the plot at the behest of War Secretary Edwin Stanton arrested his mother as a co-conspirator and tried her with seven others before a military tribunal. Despite dodgy testimony against Surratt, she was convicted — but the members of the tribunal suggested she be sentenced her to life in prison instead of death. They were overruled by Johnson and Stanton. Her lawyer, Frederick Aiken, managed to procure a last minute writ of habeas corpus to have her retried in a civilian court according to the Constitution; the writ was suspended by President Johnson and Surratt was hanged.
Within a year, the Supreme Court affirmed the right of civilians to be tried before a jury of their peers and John Surratt, captured in 1867, was tried in a civilian court. His case ended in a hung jury and he was freed.
It’s fair to say that Redford’s movie plays up the case for Surratt, as portrayed by Robin Wright Penn, using Aiken as a stand-in for the audience’s journey from skepticism to sympathy to outrage against a system stacked against her. While Redford said that he doesn’t know if Surratt was innocent or not — a position voiced by Aiken in the movie — he added that her conviction and execution “was certainly a travesty.” But, he told the audience, he wanted to give voice to Stanton’s position as well: “I felt it was important for him to have a point of view that was understandable. Whether it was defensible was another question.”
Redford said, in response to the questions that the recent moves by the Obama Administration to try the prisoners at Guantánamo under military law, rather than in civilian courts as initially promised, “In a way, I guess you could say in terms of the film, it was a bit of a gift.” Though the parallels between the Surratt tribunal and the suspension of the normal legal processes in terrorism cases were, he said, “obvious” to the audience and reviewers and suggested they should, in a perfect world, prompt a reexamination of the policy of suspending the rights of unsympathetic people in times of national insecurity.
However, in the most cynical moment of the evening, Redford admitted that he doubted much would change. “I stopped thinking that way a long time ago,” he told the audience, and now focuses on telling compelling stories.
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