The Magazine

Founder's Killing

The strange death of a pioneering jurist.

Apr 13, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 29 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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The city of Richmond decreed trappings of public mourning more effusive than those observed at the death of George Washington seven years before. Wythe's remains lay in state in the gleaming new capitol designed by
Jefferson, the first neoclassical building in America. Another Wythe protégé, William Munford, delivered an affecting eulogy that, toward the end, startled his audience by denouncing Sweeney without naming him.

Even if Munford had not condemned Sweeney publicly, few citizens doubted the young man's guilt. Gossip mongers speculated about who would be foolish enough to defend such a heinous criminal.

Rising attorney William Wirt doubted Sweeney's innocence, but that hardly set him apart from his usual clients. Wirt had pointedly shunned George Wythe's example, joking that he might otherwise "grow old in judicial honors and Roman poverty." Honor, he quipped, "will not go to market and buy a peck of potatoes." And so he made a name for himself defending rogues like Sweeney. Indeed, he needed Sweeney: If he could exonerate him, he might wipe clean the public humiliation of his last case, a spectacularly failed defense of a gutter journalist.

Even more astonishingly, Edmund Randolph joined Wirt for the defense. He had been a delegate to the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, governor of Virginia, and Washington's attorney general. But he resigned in disgrace, accused of influence peddling, and earned Washington's wrath for subsequent disloyalty. Considered a waffler by some--Jefferson called him "the purest chameleon I ever saw"--Randolph, like Wirt, sought vindication in the courtroom.

But how could he defend Sweeney? He had been one of the first to rush to his old friend's deathbed. Indeed, Randolph was the lawyer who wrote Sweeney out of the will at Wythe's dying request.

Wirt and Randolph hated one another but put that aside for the moment and yoked themselves to Sweeney in hopes of an improbable courtroom victory. It would be improbable because, by then, the whole city knew the sordid details, how the dissolute Sweeney repeatedly betrayed his great uncle, how they found arsenic in his room, how he would inherit even more once Michael Brown was out of the way (though, in this last detail, the rumors were out of date).

The most eminent doctors in Virginia had examined Wythe. The lead physician, James McClurg, enjoyed an international reputation and an ego to match. He doubted Wythe's insistence that he had been poisoned. He thought, instead, that his symptoms suggested cholera--despite the fact that cholera had not yet made an appearance in America.

Then, on the witness stand, McClurg speculated that a buildup of black bile could have killed Wythe, not cholera, and probably not arsenic. Two colleagues agreed. They conceded arsenic might have been the cause, but they could not be sure. In fact, they had botched the autopsy: They had not conducted standard tests available to them for detecting arsenic and focused on black bile found in both Wythe's and Michael Brown's bodies. The fact that stomach inflammation and a build-up of bile occurred with arsenic poisoning seemed not to have troubled them. The doctors, Chadwick concludes, transformed the case into "a colossal medical and forensic nightmare."

There was still the testimony of Lydia Broadnax to sway the jury against Sweeney. She was proof that George Wythe had been no hypocrite about slavery. He opposed it on moral grounds, urged legislation against it, and decided court cases against slaveholders' rights. Long before, he had freed his slaves, including Broadnax, who remained with him as a devoted housekeeper.

The jury, however, never heard from Broadnax for a simple, straightforward, and racist reason. Under Virginia law, the word of an African American could not be used in court against a white person. Nor could any white witness be called to repeat her statement collected by the preliminary investigation. The doctors' inept performance and the inadmissibility of Broadnax's testimony doomed the prosecution, and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Not convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, the jury opted for acquittal.

Yet amid public shock at the verdict, the Richmond Examiner admitted it was the law banning the testimony of blacks against whites that freed Sweeney. When Wythe and Jefferson had radically reformed Virginia's statutes in the middle of the revolution, Wythe had let that ban stand. Three decades later it enabled his murderer to escape the hangman.