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History of Law
What was the first court case, and when was it? How was it decided? And had either lawyer gone to law school? Luckily, that's something we can answer.
The right to a trial by jury is actually defined in the U.S. Constitution, and was first mentioned in the Declaration of Independence; King George III had deprived the colonies of the benefits of trial by jury. Later, this right to trial by jury was expanded on to add the right to a speedy and public trial, along with an impartial jury and the right to be tried in the area where the crime was committed. This ties back into why jury duty is such an important part of U.S. law, because it was considered important enough to make it into the Declaration of Independence.
When did the first trial happen, though? There are varying dates, but one of the earliest known trials - and certainly one of the most visible - happened in 1800. Alexander Hamitlon and Aaron Burr teamed up to defend Levi Weeks, a man accused of murdering his girlfriend. Actually, due to the interest stirred up in it being perhaps the first murder case in court, it was also the first court case to be fully transcribed. In another groundbreaking move, the case itself took two days to be decided, with the jury actually sleeping at the courtroom until they were called upon. Unsurprisingly, from what we know about the team-up of Hamilton and Burr, Levi Weeks was ruled to be not guilty by the jury, and walked free.
Hamilton and Burr first came into prominence as revolutionaries and politicians, popular and well-liked. During the case, their fame was even brought up during the opening statements. The murder itself was sensationalist, but people were focusing on his lawyers. (It's still happening today - the popular Broadway musical "Hamilton," includes a song set during the trial, where Hamilton sings about the case: "Gentlemen of the jury, I'm curious, bear with me / Are you aware that we're making history? / This is the first murder trial of our brand-new nation.")
It's fair to say that this is the first documented trial by jury, though it may not be the first there was in U.S. history. And of course, before that, who knows how cases were settled? Regardless, it's not a bad "first case," as it could be dubbed, and reading the transcript back is interesting as well. It's been 216 years of our law system as we know it today - not bad, right?