Directed by Robert Redford, a young Union officer defends Mary Surratt before a military tribunal on charges of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to kill President Lincoln.
Captain Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) and another Union soldier are lying wounded on a battlefield, and Aiken tells a story about men who were asked how they died. He also calls for help. A sergeant and another soldier arrive, and Aiken orders them to take the other man first even though they believe he is as good as dead. They put the groaning man on a stretcher and carry him away.
Two years later fireworks explode on April 14, 1865 as they celebrate in Washington that Lee has surrendered to Grant. At a party Aiken and other soldiers see Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) arriving. Aiken goes to meet him, and the others follow him reluctantly. Aiken is stopped by Senator Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), and Aiken introduces Nicholas Baker (Justin Long) and William Hamilton (James Badge Dale) to him. Johnson takes Aiken aside and introduces him to Stanton. Johnson says Aiken had two horses shot out from under him, and Stanton says they could use him at the War Department. Johnson says Aiken has returned to being a lawyer and that it is time to heal the nation, not wage more war. Stanton says that President Lincoln will not be attending because Mrs. Lincoln prefers the theater. Aiken finds Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel).
Outside a theater men are watching. John Wilkes Booth (Toby Kebbell) enters a back door.
Lewis Payne (Norman Reedus) knocks on a door and asks to see Secretary Seward.
In the theater the audience laughs during the play. In the lobby a man buys two drinks.
Sarah tells Aiken that Stanton is a smart man, and she believes the War Department would be lucky to have him; but Aiken wants to put the war behind him. She says he is handsome in his uniform, but she can get used to him in civilian clothes. He is glad that she missed him and kisses her.
During the play Booth quietly opens a door in the balcony. After finishing his drinks the man goes outside.
Payne in Seward’s house misfires his pistol and assaults a guard in the hall. He forces his way into the bedroom where Seward is laid up. He stabs the guard and then Seward as a woman screams.
Outside a man mounts a horse and leads another horse.
President Abraham Lincoln is watching the play from a balcony. In that balcony Booth fires a derringer at Lincoln’s head and struggles with men. He jumps from the balcony down on to the stage, stands up, and shouts, “Sic semper tyrannis! The South is avenged!” He limps off the stage while Mary Lincoln and others attend to the shot Lincoln.
Payne coming out of Seward’s house throws away a knife as he descends the outside steps.
By the theater door Booth mounts a horse and fights off an older man as he rides off.
At the party Baker tells Aiken that Lincoln has been shot.
Soldiers carry Lincoln out of the theater, through a crowd, and across the street. Aiken steps on a coach to watch. A soldier pounds on the door, and the soldiers carry Lincoln into the house and lay him on a bed.
Stanton arrives on a coach and pushes his way into the house. Soldiers direct him to the bedroom. He looks in the doorway, and doctors go in and out. A soldier tells Stanton that John Wilkes Booth did it, and he was identified by many in the theater. Stanton says one man did not orchestrate this alone. He asks where Grant is and orders him brought to him. He orders the forts put on alert and to make sure all cabinet officers are accounted for. Stanton says he is staying there. A soldier says other names have come up, including John Surratt, and his mother runs a boarding house in town. Stanton orders him found and the city closed so that they cannot escape to Canada or south of the Potomac. The soldier says that the Vice President wants to pay his respects; but Stanton says only when he says it is safe, and he orders him kept away from liquor. He tells a man to get Mary Lincoln out of there.
The newspapers report that President Lincoln was murdered, and the War Department offers rewards up to $100,000. Men are rounded up and arrested in various places. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and her daughter Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) are taken from the boarding house.
Soldiers track Booth and another man to a barn. The soldiers set it on fire. One man comes out with his hands up and is arrested. Booth tries to shoot and is shot and killed.
The nation mourns as Lincoln’s body is taken back to Springfield, Illinois.
Aiken comes into the office of Senator Johnson who asks him if he knows the trial of the conspirators is beginning today. Johnson says he has taken one of the cases and wants Aiken to be his second chair. Aiken says he thought it was to be a military tribunal, and Johnson says the government has chosen nine Union officers as judges. Stanton has put the judge advocate Joseph Holt in charge of the prosecution. Aiken asks what they are to do. Johnson has a letter from Mary Surratt, and Aiken notes that her son John was Booth’s “right hand.” Johnson says then they should try him. Aiken says they would if they could find him, and they have 250 agents looking for him. He says she built the nest that hatched the plot as President Johnson said. Senator Johnson says that trying civilians by a military tribunal is an atrocity, but Aiken says what they did was an atrocity. Johnson says they will have no presumption of innocence, no jury of their peers, and no appeal. Aiken asks how Johnson could represent her, but Johnson says she is entitled to a defense.
Soldiers guide seven hooded male prisoners into a courtroom. General David Hunter (Colm Meaney) judging charges Mary Surratt of having received, entertaining, harboring, concealing, aiding and abetting John Wilkes Booth and his confederates in murdering President Lincoln and attempting to murder Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson. Mary Surratt is sitting at a table next to Senator Johnson and removes her veil. The judge asks how she pleads to the charge, and she says, “I am innocent.” The judge asks judge advocate Holt (Danny Huston) to proceed, but Johnson requests an adjournment. He says his client has been in custody for a month but was not allowed to see counsel until yesterday. Holt stands up and says they should not prolong the nation’s sorrow. Johnson points out that Holt had four weeks to prepare his case with the assistance of the War Department. He believes his client deserves equal consideration. Judge Hunter says it will be better for everyone if they can dispose of this as soon as possible. Johnson says that is not better for his client. Hunter orders Holt to proceed, and Johnson moves for termination because the trial is unconstitutional. A civilian is entitled to a public trial before a jury of her peers. Holt says the Attorney General has confirmed the proceeding, and Johnson asks if he has confirmed the verdict as well. Hunter tells Johnson to mind the horror that summoned them. Johnson says they all mourn the loss of their leader, but he asks them not in grief to engage in an inquisition. Another military judge says they have an enemy among them from Maryland, not one of the most loyal states during the war. Johnson notes that he served the nation as attorney general. Hunter says he must sign an oath of loyalty prescribed by Congress. Johnson says he is a member of Congress that creates armies and military tribunals. Hunter says his orders come from Stanton and the President. Johnson says that if the founding fathers wanted tyranny, they would have given the President and the war secretary such indiscriminant powers; but they drafted a constitution with laws against those powers precisely for situations like this. People react, and Hunter calls for order.
Outside Senator Johnson asks Aiken to defend Mary Surratt because she will not stand a chance with a southerner like himself defending her; but she will with a Yankee captain like him. Aiken says he can’t; but Johnson says experience doesn’t matter when they are making up the rules as they go along. This government has never executed a woman. Aiken says they never imagined anyone murdering the President, and he won’t do it. Aiken says he will not betray his country and his friends who defended it. Johnson tells him to obey his oath as an attorney and do his job.
While dining at a restaurant Aiken tells Sarah that Johnson wants him to defend Mary Surratt. Later he tells other friends who are surprised.
Aiken enters a prison and is taken to a cell block where men are hooded. Then he is taken to a dark cell where Mary Surratt sits on the floor. Aiken tells the soldier that the conversation is privileged; but the soldier says his orders are to remain. She asks where Senator Johnson is, and Aiken says he has instructed him to handle the case. Aiken asks if she knows what she is charged with and that she could be hanged. She asks how old he is, and he says he is 27. She asks if he has handled cases like this, and he says there have never been cases like this. She asks if he has defended others, and he does not answer. He asks how long she has been in that boarding house, and she says she moved there a year ago with her son and daughter after her husband died. She admits that Booth and others were visitors there. She says her husband died from drinking and left her with much debt, and she had to support her family. She says they were customers, and she did not ask their allegiances. She says she is a southerner, a Catholic, and a mother but not an assassin. He says her freedom will require more. She asks him what she should say to the judges, but he says she is prohibited from testifying in her own defense. He says her son could speak on her behalf and asks if she knows where he is hiding. She says no. He asks if anyone can tell her side. She says he means the truth, but he says the government does not believe she speaks the truth. She asks based on what, and he says they don’t even have to tell them who their witnesses are or what evidence they have. She asks if they can do that, and he says they can do whatever they want. She concludes that the generals have already made up their minds. She can tell by the way they and he look at her. He says he has to go. She asks him to look in on her daughter because she has not heard from her at all.
Aiken goes to the boarding house and hands a pass from the War Department to the soldier guarding the door. He lets him in. He walks in empty rooms and says it is perfect. Anna Surratt speaks to him, and he tells her who he is and that he is representing her mother. She asks what is perfect, and he laughs. He says it would be a perfect place to conspire to overthrow the government. He asks if she is alone there, and she says yes and wonders if he is afraid to be seen with her. He says her mother asked him to see her. She says she is a prisoner in her own house. He asks where her brother’s room is and goes upstairs to it alone. He looks in drawers and at papers on the desk. He finds a passage ticket with “L. J. W.” written on the back. He goes downstairs and asks her if he shared a room with L. J. W. Anna says Louis J. Weichmann was like a son to her mother. She says he will swear that she is innocent. He assumes he disappeared too. She asks if he fought in the war and if he killed any on her side. He asks if she has any documents of accounts indicating who stayed there. He asks if she wants him to help her mother. From behind a chest she pulls out a book of accounts, and he asks if she is concealing anything else. A brick smashes through the window and lands on the floor near them. They both fall to the floor. He rushes out and asks the guard if he saw who threw that. He goes back and asks if she is hurt. She says she is fine. She asks to be excused.
Aiken rides in the country to a fort and enters across a moat. He enters the tribunal room, and Baker tells him that Hamilton has offered to be his second chair; but Hamilton says no. Aiken sees Sarah and asks why she is there. She replies she is wondering why he is there. She wishes him luck.
Aiken and Mary Surratt sit a table, and the tribunal is called to order. The prosecution calls its first witness, Louis Weichmann (Jonathan Groff). Aiken asks Mary why they called him, and she says she does not know. The witness is sworn and says he attended divinity college with Mary’s son John and lived with him at the boarding house. Holt asks if any of the six men were present there, and Louis says that three were. Holt asks who invited them, and he says John Surratt. Aiken objects and says there is no evidence that John knew them or invited them. Hunter over-rules the objection. Louis testifies that John Wilkes Booth was also there, and he says that the entire Surratt family adored him. He says there were many meetings there that lasted two or three hours and were held in secret. He admits that Mary never objected to the meetings or to those men. He says she seemed to welcome them. Aiken asks if he timed the meetings and if they were kept secret from him. Louis says he did not know what they were about because he never attended them himself. Louis says he thought they were suspicious, and Aiken says then he did know what they were about. Louis denies that, but his suspicions were aroused by rebel conversations he heard in the hallways. Louis testifies that he reported his suspicions to Captain Gleason in the War Department. Aiken asks if he ever has been in Richmond, and Louis does not recall. Aiken asks about the ticket to Richmond with his initials on it, and Louis says that he is continuing his divinity studies there after the war. Aiken says there is no such academy in Richmond and asks if he had another purpose. An objection is heard and sustained. Aiken asks if he worked for a general in charge of rebel prisoners and if he had special information that might have interested those in the Confederacy’s capital. Holt objects because the witness is not on trial. One of the defendants says he ought to be, and Hunter sustains the objection. Aiken argues that he is challenging the credibility of a witness who may know much about the conspiracy, having been to Richmond. Hunter asks if he has anything more that is relevant, and Aiken says no and sits down.
At the Century Club friends of Aiken advise him not to ask a question he does not know the answer to, and he admits he did not know that Weichmann was lying about Richmond. Baker says he gambled twice, and Hamilton asks how he passed the bar. Baker says it worked and that he made Weichmann look as guilty as the others. Hamilton agrees and says that is the problem. He asks if Mary knew what was going on, and Aiken says she should have known.
Aiken visits the office of Senator Johnson and says he thinks she is as guilty as Booth and wonders how he can defend her. Johnson says he is assuming her guilt but has no proof. Aiken says he does not care what happens to her. Johnson says if he can prove that she is guilty, he can take himself off the case. Aiken thanks him and believes it will be easy.
In the fort Aiken finds Mary in her cell with a priest. He asks to be alone with her. The priest says he must be going, and she thanks him for coming. The priest tells Aiken that she is refusing to eat, and he could help him persuade her to eat. She quotes Proverbs about searching her heart to see if she is wicked, and he quotes the next passage about the wicked perishing. He says his father was a minister. He asks why Booth and his friends were in her home so much. She says she ran a boarding house. He says the ledger shows that Booth never stayed there, and he asks why he was there so much. She says her son was his friend. He says her son carried rebel secrets across Union lines. He says she is lying and that she wanted to save the Confederacy. Her son was to lead the others in their escape. She says her son was in Canada, and she received a letter from Montreal on April 14. He asks where the letter is, but she does not know. He says he is done with her lies, and she calls him so blind with hatred that he cannot see the truth. She admits her son and she hated the North. Her son did not conspire to kill the President but to kidnap him.
In a forest the conspirators on horses are waiting for Booth who rides up and tells them that Lincoln is not coming because he is making a speech. They ride to the boarding house, and Mary looks out and inside tells Anna to go back upstairs. Later Booth points a pistol at John Surratt (Johnny Simmons) and says fools can cause them to lose the fight. Mary’s voice calls John, and he leaves the room.
Mary explains to Aiken that they wanted to trade Lincoln for all the Confederate prisoners. Aiken asks why she did not report this, and she says because one of them was her son. She denies that her son is a murderer. He asks her to swear to that on the Bible.
John Surratt tells Mary he is leaving, and she refuses to let him go. Anna comes in. John says he is leaving town. Mary says she will not let him do something foolish because the war is over. She says his family is his responsibility. She tries to hold his coat to keep him from going, but he pushes her on the floor and says this cause is worth fighting for and goes out.
Aiken confirms that that was two weeks before the assassination and assumes her son conspired in the assassination. She says she does not know if he did; but she does know that she did not, and she swears with her hand on the Bible. Aiken sees this and goes out.
Aiken visits Anna at the boarding house and insists that she tell him what happened there. He says Weichmann testified against her mother. He says what her mother told him. He asks if she tried to stop him, but she says his brother is stubborn. She does not want to incriminate her brother and says he left two weeks before the assassination. He asks if she knows of anyone else who could testify against her mother.
In court Holt questions Major Smith about his search of the boarding house. He identifies on a card next to a photo of Booth the words “Sic semper tyrannis” and translates it as “Thus always for tyrants.”
While Smith is there, a man knocks on the door and is questioned. He says that Mary sent for him. Smith orders Mary brought in and asks her if she knows him. She says no.
Smith identifies defendant Lewis Payne as that man she denied knowing. Holt says he boarded there and tried to kill Seward. Aiken asks Smith if he knew that Payne boarded there under another name, and Smith says that is what she claimed. Aiken offers as evidence the ledger of guest accounts. Aiken says he learned that Mary’s eyesight is defective and presents a document from a doctor. Smith admits it is possible she could have failed to see him well.
Senator Johnson asks for a transcript of the day’s trial, and Stanton comes in to his dinner table and sits down. Stanton asks him to call a truce, but Johnson calls the trial a travesty. Johnson asks about the rule of law, and Stanton says his duty is to make sure the war stays won. Johnson quotes articles in the newspaper where Stanton has warned of conspiracies. Johnson says the country is frightened, and he does not need to scare them any more. Stanton says those things could happen. Stanton says 600,000 are dead, and the world has changed; but Johnson says that abandoning the Constitution is not the answer. Stanton stands up and warns him that his young associate may make enemies he may not forget, and he goes out.
In her cell Mary is coughing and has not eaten her food.
Aiken comes to see Stanton, but they will not let him in without an appointment. Holt offers to meet with him. Aiken says Mary has not eaten nor had fresh air. He says she may not be fit for trial. Aiken asks him not to treat her like a savage. Holt is offended and asks if he remembers how their prisoners were treated. Aiken warns that she may lose her soundness of mind, and the government may want to avoid that. Holt says he has a way that may serve all interests, but he will deny he ever said this.
Aiken finds Mary sitting outside enjoying the sun, and she thanks him. He wishes she would eat now. He asks if she knows where her son is hiding, and she says no. He says the government believes she does. He thinks she knows more than she is telling him. He says he spent four years fighting for something greater than himself, and she says they are the same. He says she has to tell them where her son is. She asks if she wants him to trade her son for herself. She wishes she could help him, but he has to find another way.
In mixed company Baker tells a story about Aiken baring his ass in defiance of the rebels before a battle. Aiken denies it. The women repeat outrageous rumors about what Mary Surratt does. Hamilton asks Aiken if he doubts she is guilty. Baker plays piano and sings a song about Gettysburg. Aiken asks Baker for a happier song. Hamilton and Sarah agree that Aiken cannot win because he will appear incompetent for losing or be hated for winning. She says they are despicable criminals, and he says he does not know what she is guilty of. Sarah asks him to dance.
Aiken chats with Johnson and says Mary is entitled to a defense, and so he will defend her. Johnson says he should give them John Surratt to prove that he, not she, is responsible.
Holt questions the witness John Lloyd who says that Mary visited him with Weichmann on the day Lincoln was shot. He says she gave him a package from John Wilkes Booth. Aiken objects and is over-ruled. Holt shows the field-glasses that Lloyd says were in the package, and they have the initials J. W. B. on them. Lloyd says she told him to get the shooting irons ready. Mary stands up and calls him a liar. Judge Hunter reprimands her and tells Aiken to control his client. Lloyd says she was referring to hidden army rifles. He says she was also to get two bottles of whiskey. Lloyd says that at midnight on the night of the assassination he saw two men.
Two men ride up, and Lloyd hands them a bottle and a rifle, and they leave in a hurry.
Aiken asks Lloyd if Weichmann heard her instructions to him, but he says she took him aside out of hearing. Lloyd testifies that he heard of Lincoln’s death the next morning from Captain Cottingham. Lloyd says he drank liquor, and Aiken says he does that every day. Objections are sustained. Lloyd says he told the officer about the two who passed through, but Aiken says he did not. He did not report that for two days, and Lloyd says he was frightened. Lloyd says the Surratts got him in trouble. Aiken asks if it was John Surratt who brought the guns to him and showed him where to hide them. Aiken asks if he forced him against his will. Aiken says John also could have forced his mother to do things against her will. Mary tells him to stop. Objections are sustained. Aiken says that Mary is only guilty of being John’s mother. Holt asks Lloyd if Mary told him to prepare rifles and two bottles of whiskey, and he says yes. Holt rests the government’s case. Aiken asks Lloyd what they promised him to say that. Hunter warns Aiken, and Lloyd tries to go after Aiken but is restrained by soldiers. Hunter orders Aiken to sit down. Hunter adjourns the court.
On a military field Aiken finds Captain Cottingham and asks to speak to him.
In court Aiken asks Captain Cottingham if he interviewed Lloyd and if he told him that Mary asked him to get rifles and whiskey. Cottingham says that is correct. Aiken is surprised and asks if he told him the opposite yesterday. Cottingham admits that he lied to Aiken, but under oath he is telling the truth. Hunter adjourns because of a celebration honoring the troops. Aiken accuses Holt of turning every one of his witness by jail or the threat of it. Hunter tells him that is enough. Aiken says there is no limit on how far the prosecution will go. Hunter warns Aiken of contempt lest he be incarcerated.
Aiken and Sarah are walking into a building when a black servant asks for a word with him. Sarah reads that Aiken has been banned from the Century Club, and he asks Nick to escort Sarah upstairs for him. She kisses Baker and says another night before walking away alone. Aiken catches up to her and asks where she is going. She refers to “conduct unbecoming” and indicates she does not care about the party. She objects to his devotion to this cause. He says he is sorry and says they need to talk. She gets in a carriage and says she loves him, but she cannot do this. He offers to see her home and asks her to wait. He goes over to Stanton and asks to speak to him. He says what is happening to Mary Surratt is an abomination, and an officer tells him to stand down. Stanton comes back and urges him to tread lightly. Aiken says he will not because he has predetermined her fate. Stanton says her fate rests with the commission. Aiken asks why he fought for the Union if his rights are not assured. Stanton says they assassinated the President, and people want them held accountable. Aiken says he wants John Surratt, not Mary. Stanton says he will settle for either one, and he goes up the stairs. Aiken sees that Sarah has left and walks in the street.
Aiken finishes a drink.
Aiken visits Anna Surratt and asks her to testify. She says she will say her mother is innocent. He says he needs her to say that her brother is guilty, but she refuses. He says her brother does not need to be saved, but her mother does.
In court Aiken calls Anna Surratt who asks where her mother is. Aiken says she is behind soldiers, and she asks why she is not allowed to see her. She testifies that her brother first met John Wilkes Booth in January 1865. She admits that John was proud of being a friend of Booth. John invited Booth to come to her home. She identifies a picture of Booth. She says her brother told her to tear up the photo and throw it away. Aiken asks why, and Mary shouts, “No.” Anna says he was trying to protect his mother. Aiken quietly reminds her she has to choose. She says he and Booth were planning something. Aiken asks what, and she says no. She testifies that she and her mother tried to stop him from leaving in early April. He asks if her mother conspires with Booth, and she says no. Holt says the government understands why Anna would be moved to conceal her mother’s guilt. Anna says her mother is innocent, and Hunter dismisses her. Anna tells her mother that she is sorry. Aiken asks the commission to let Mary see her daughter briefly, and Hunter nods and says they will reconvene in the morning.
Aiken on a doorstep suddenly runs into Anna who says he never asked why she had Booth’s photo.
John Surratt tells Anna to tear up the photo and throw it away because that man is going to get us all in trouble. She hides it behind another picture.
Anna says she should have thrown it away. Aiken learns that she was infatuated with Booth, and she says she did not know what he would do. He says her brother did.
Aiken finds the priest and says he wants to see John Surratt and that Anna sent him. The priest says he can only convey a message. Aiken asks where he is, and the priest says he does not know. Some in church have provided sanctuary. Aiken warns him he is a murderer, and doing that is illegal. The priest relies on the Bible, but Aiken says interpretations vary. The priest asks if he has a message, and Aiken says that he will make his summary tomorrow and that his mother may be punished for his crimes.
In court Aiken says that a lawyer has a duty to defend the innocent and wronged. He says that the government’s case rests on three acts—her acquaintance with Booth, her alleged instructions to Lloyd, and her not recognizing Payne. That is her only part in the conspiracy. The government says she had evil intent because of the testimony of Weichmann and Lloyd who are not very credible. They gained their freedom by falsely accusing another. Mary Surratt is only there because of her son. He invited Booth into her home and hid the rifles. If she is convicted on such insufficient evidence, none of them are safe. He asks them not to sacrifice their sacred rights out of revenge. Too many have laid down their lives to preserve them. Holt says one bullet killed the President but not one man.
Aiken visits Mary in her cell, and she asks for word about her son. She says he wanted to enlist, and she would not let him. She says he wanted to be his own man.
The commission votes that three men are to be put to death. On Mary Surratt only four commissioners vote for death.
Stanton says she must be put to death, but Holt says a majority preferred life in prison. Stanton says they must change their minds.
An officer reads to Mary in her cell that she is guilty of conspiring to kill Lincoln and the other two, and the commission sentences her to be hanged.
Aiken reads the newspaper about the four hangings tomorrow at noon.
John Surratt gets a message.
Men are constructing the scaffold.
Johnson tells Aiken he has three options. He can petition the President for a stay of execution, but he will refuse. He can apply for a writ of habeas corpus to retry her in a civilian court, but no judge will defy Stanton. The third is that John Surratt could appear before noon. Johnson says he has to go.
At night Baker and Hamilton visit Aiken who is working on a writ of habeas corpus. He asks Hamilton about judges, but he says none will do it. Aiken decides to try Wylie.
Aiken knocks, and Judge Wylie (John Cullum) asks what he wants so late. Aiken says it is for Mary Surratt. Wylie has read the writ and questions Aiken. Wylie says he was appointed by Lincoln. Aiken says he is trying to prevent injustice. He says Wylie holds the Constitution sacred to protect people in peace and war. Aiken says he does not know if she is innocent; but if she does not get a decent trial, no one ever will.
At dawn Aiken takes a document to Stanton who is resting on a couch. He reads it and shows it to Holt. Stanton asks Aiken if he wants to see order and justice restored. Aiken says this is revenge, not justice. Stanton says the existence of the nation is more important than the rights. Aiken asks him to make sure that Mary Surratt is taken to Judge Wylie’s courtroom by noon, and he goes out.
In Mary’s cell Aiken tells Mary and Anna that she will get a civilian trial, and they thank him and hug each other. Aiken sees four nooses outside and says there should only be three. The soldiers come in and say it is time. Aiken says she is to go to Judge Wylie’s court. An officer advises sedating the young lady, and Anna objects. The officer says the President suspended his writ and shows Aiken a paper. She is to hang with the others. Anna asks Aiken to do something, and he shakes his head. Mary is taken away, and Anna screams.
Holt quotes to Aiken a Latin saying meaning “In times of war the law falls silent.” He says they learned that the last Confederate general surrendered to Union troops; they have peace at last. He turns and goes.
Mary and the three men are escorted by soldiers to the scaffold. Mary carries a rosary and sees four coffins and four open graves. They walk up the steps. Mary sees Aiken among the small crowd. The order of execution is read aloud. The priest blesses Mary. Hats and shoes are removed. Hands are tied behind their backs. The nooses are put around their necks, and hoods are put over their heads. The floor collapses, and the four are hanged.
Sixteen months later Aiken visits a prison to a cell where John Surratt thanks him for his efforts. Aiken says he is no longer practicing law. John says he did not think they would kill her. Aiken offers him his mother’s rosary, but John says it belongs to Aiken who goes out.
A year later the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that citizens are entitled to a jury trial even during a war. John Surratt was not convicted by a civilian jury. Frederick Aiken became the first city editor of the Washington Post.
This historical drama accurately portrays a trial held while Americans were mourning a tragic assassination and the culmination of a devastating war. Amid this atmosphere a woman was convicted with little evidence by a military tribunal. This drama reflects contemporary concerns that resulted from the George W. Bush administration’s reaction to the attack on September 11, 2001 which resulted in two unnecessary and costly wars and taking away civil liberties in the name of a war on terrorism. How many people know that in the 1950s the US Supreme Court took away the constitutional right to a jury trial for misdemeanors in federal courts? The result of this disregard of the Constitution means that those protesting the crimes of the US Government nonviolently can be imprisoned without their right to a jury trial. In 2012 the US Congress passed a law allowing the government to detain citizens without charges in direct violation of the Constitution.