In the wake of the British burning of Washington and the end of the War of 1812, a Maryland lawyer and businessman who returned four British soldiers to the enemy stood on trial for treason in 1815.
Almost 200 years later, local judges, attorneys and members of the legal community gathered to recreate the scene in which defense attorney William Pinkney delivered the closing argument that resulted in the jury’s acquittal of John Hodges.
“The Treason Trial of John Hodges,” put on by the Maryland chapter of the Federal Bar Association and the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar Tuesday evening, condensed a one-day trial into a 50-minute play at the ceremonial courtroom in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
“The play involves mostly the actual transcript of the trial,” said Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor who played the role of Pinkney. “What adds to the interest, at least for lawyers, is the fact that in Maryland, the jury was the judge of law, not just of fact, in a criminal case.”
By those standards, Warnken said, only the jury could rule on the validity of the treason charge.
Warnken and his fellow cast-mates, including Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein and Gary C. Duvall, a principal at Miles & Stockbridge, began working on the play a couple of months ago, he said, but didn’t hold a rehearsal until last week. Because the actors did not memorize their lines, most of the group’s meetings were logistical, he said.
More than half the play’s script consisted of Pinkney’s words, including the defense lawyer’s closing argument, which Warnken said is often cited as the greatest closing argument in history.
Pinkney’s defense of Hodges rested on the argument that the charge filed against him — called “constructive treason” — should have been abolished.
“[Pinkney] basically said, look, I put my life on the line here,” Warnken said. “He was a little bit flippant, but he was very, very strong in saying you could not find this person guilty; it goes against everything we stand for.”
After the mock trial, several members of the legal community, including a few of the performers, planned to hold a panel discussion focused on the history of the major players in the case and the legal issues at stake.
“The goal is to highlight some of the differences between practicing criminal law today and 200 years ago,” said Rosenstein, who played the role of U.S. Attorney Elias Glenn.
Before the show Tuesday evening, several cast members said they expected a good turnout due to the play’s ties to local history, as the city gears up for the Star-Spangled Spectacular celebration later this week.
“The whole case happened mostly in Prince George’s County, and then it’s tried in federal court in Baltimore,” Warnken said. “It’s certainly got a local flavor.”