Verdict in mock trial of Bushwhacker William Quantrill surprises even his portrayer

Friday, October 25, 2013 | 8:39 p.m. CDT; updated 9:58 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 25, 2013

COLUMBIA — Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill may have once whistled Dixie, but he never faced the music.

Until Thursday night at the Missouri Theatre. There, the man who led the raid that burned Lawrence, Kan., to the ground, resulting in the deaths of more than 150 civilians, finally stood trial.

Well, sort of.

The event at the theater was a mock trial staged by the Historical and Theatrical Trial Society of the MU School of Law. The trial took the form of a military commission. The defendant and witnesses were portrayed by MU students, as were two of the lawyers. A real judge presided, and the jury was composed of military service members, but any justice dispensed was purely symbolic.

And the direction that justice pointed was unexpected for many: not guilty.

Lead prosecutor Frank Bowman, an MU law professor, had foreseen a 4-2 decision in his side's favor.

Even Quantrill, as played by Matt Vineyard, had seemed pessimistic about his chances before the trial.

"If it comes to a jury trial, it's less law and more emotion," he said. "And given that I massacred a town …"

Perhaps he hadn't seen the man in the lobby wearing the black cap emblazoned with the supportive words "Remember Quantrill  — Burn 'em Again." Or the two gentlemen in Confederate garb bearing black flags with the letter "Q" on them.

"The black flag signifies no quarter or surrender," said Brian Flowers, one of the Confederate re-enactors. "When you flew the black flag, it was total war, no surrender."

These men didn't sit on the jury, but the jury's composition might have had less to do with the verdict than the jury's location.

"We're in Missouri as opposed to Kansas," Bowman said in way of explanation after his courtroom defeat.

In other words, justice is in the eye of the beholder.

Interestingly enough, this sentiment was similar to the argument the defense made, which led to Quantrill's acquittal.

"How can we say Quantrill is guilty of these crimes if Gen. Lane is not, if Gen. Sherman is not, if Gen. Custer is not?" asked Troy Stabenow, the lead defense attorney and a federal public defender in real life, during closing arguments.

To the defense, Quantrill was a scapegoat, a commissioned Confederate officer who, yes, may have committed some atrocities, but no different than those committed by Union generals.

The facts of the case weren't in dispute. In the early morning hours of Aug. 21, 1863, William Quantrill led a band of 450 Confederate guerrillas into Lawrence. His orders were simple.

"Kill any man or boy big enough to hold a gun," Quantrill is reported to have said.

Over the next four hours, more than 150 civilians were slaughtered.

The motive was revenge, specifically against the actions of pro-abolitionist Jayhawkers and their Union sympathizers.

One incident mentioned at the trial was the 1861 ransacking of Osceola by James Henry Lane, later a brigadier general in the Union army, and a group of Jayhawkers.

Prosecutors at the trial made the point that the Osceola incident was nearly 2 years old at the time of the Lawrence Massacre and resulted in only nine deaths, but their argument failed to carry the day.

Several historical figures testified during the trial, including former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Frank James, brother of Jesse, whose portrayal by Nicholas Jain brought a bit of comic relief to the sometimes heavy proceedings.

"We looked dandy in them!" James declared when a prosecutor asked him to identify the distinctive blue and white shirts favored by Quantrill's men.

Sgt. Richard Glover of the 2nd Kansas Infantry Regiment Colored, played by MU law professor Chuck Henson, testified to witnessing part of the massacre.

"All gray with the dust of the road and they was covered with guns," is how Glover described Quantrill's men, who he said murdered a friend of his in cold blood.

Although the Lawrence Massacre resulted in many more deaths, the trial focused on six for purposes of time.

Stabenow conceded that this might have had something to do with the 5-1 not-guilty verdict.

"Given the evidence that we had the time to present, it was a good verdict," Stabenow said. "It might have been more different if the government had more time to present witnesses."

By the sound of it, the lack of additional evidence favoring the prosecution wasn't a problem for the audience.

When the not-guilty verdict was read, the crowd let loose with applause.

Supervising editor John Schneller.

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