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5-minute Dakota War capital trials underline the need for eternal civil liberties vigilance

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My public elementary school teachers taught us about “Honest Abe” Lincoln. None of my teachers ever taught me about Lincoln’s approval for a mass hanging of thirty-eight Dakota Indians in 1862.

Arising from the Dakota War, United States military commission trials of 392 American Indians in Minnesota in 1862 led to 323 convictions and 303 death sentences. President Lincoln reduced the number of death sentences to 38, and all were hanged on the same date in a mass execution whose audience was in the throes of a circus mentality.

Capital punishment is bad enough as it is. Worse here was that these were show trials, without even basic Constitutional protections assured. The average trial lasted up to five minutes, the defendants went to trial without lawyers, without Indian language interpreters, and apparently with most or all not even knowing what was going on at the trials. I surmise they were not even advised of their appellate rights. Had President Lincoln, the lawyer, bothered to check, he would have known that none of these trials provided sufficient due process, even in those days and during the Civil War, to have justified even one hanging.

And here we are full circle, where Guantanamo inmates are tried by military commissions with much reduced due process trial protections than for those tried in American civilian criminal courts. Lincoln’s blunder in ordering even one hanging of the American Indians sentenced to death in 1862 is barely a thing of the past, particularly with the approach of an inauguration day for a new president Trump, who can be expected to be particularly hostile to civil liberties. We must never let our civil liberties vigilance down for even a moment.