Case is clear as Mudd, kin say Family tries to clear its name, sullied in 1865.

January 23, 1992|By Carol Emert | Carol Emert,States News Service Joe Nawrozki contributed to this story.

WASHINGTON -- Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Charles County doctor convicted in 1865 of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, was convicted unconstitutionally by a military tribunal even though he was a civilian and two of the judges on the panel were personal friends of Mr. Lincoln.

Furthermore, it was revealed by a former veteran FBI agent that four of the witnesses who helped convict the physician were mentally unstable. The other two witnesses at Mudd's trial doubted his complicity in the assassination.

The testimony came in a small courtroom at the Pentagon yesterday. Dr. Mudd's descendants are hoping, after 127 years, to clear the maligned family name.

Dr. Mudd, a country doctor from Southern Maryland, had been awakened by a knock on the door at 4 a.m. on April 15, 1865, and had set the broken leg of a man who claimed he had fallen from his horse. The man turned out to be John Wilkes Booth, an actor who had fatally shot Lincoln six hours earlier in Washington.

For the Mudd family, whose name is now synonymous with wrongdoing, the rest is an uncomfortable history that they hope soon will be laid to rest. President Andrew Johnson commuted Mudd's sentence in 1869, allowing the doctor to return to his family farm near Bryanstown. But he was never cleared of the conspiracy charges.

Dr. Richard D. Mudd of Saginaw, Mich., has been working for 74 years to clear his grandfather's name. A retired military surgeon and veteran of two wars, Richard Mudd has lobbied the media, delivered over 700 lectures and petitioned presidents and members of Congress to have his grandfather declared innocent.

The hearing yesterday was the culmination of his effort.

"I have always hoped I would live to see this resolved," Richard Mudd pointedly told the five presiding members of the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. "Ninety-one is getting up there and I don't know how much longer I have to wait."

Richard Mudd turns 91 tomorrow.

Richard Mudd's lifelong work has attracted many supporters, including the Maryland and Michigan historical societies. It inspired a 1973 resolution by the Maryland House of Delegates asking for a reconsideration of the case.

The Army agreed after a recent change in rules to review the case. The presiding panel will make a recommendation to the Secretary of the Army, who has the authority to overturn the conviction.

The atmosphere at the hearing was akin to that at a family reunion. A descendant of the lawyer who represented Samuel Mudd, Candida Ewing Steel, is a Maryland lawyer and co-counsel in the case. Ms. Steel is the great-great-granddaughter of Samuel Mudd's lawyer, Thomas Ewing Jr.

Ms. Steel discovered the link with Richard J. Mudd, a Washington lawyer who is Samuel Mudd's great-great-grandson, and offered to carry on her ancestor's work. She and Richard J. Mudd presented the case together, along with Laura Vargas Chapelle, a great-great-granddaughter of Samuel Mudd who practices law in Michigan.

A great-grandson of Samuel Mudd with a long career in law enforcement testified about the weakness of evidence presented in the 1865 trial.

"This case could never have gone to trial today," said Jack McHale, who spent 27 years with the FBI and four years as the police chief of Prince George's County.

"You could never have even gotten an indictment based on [the evidence used in 1865]."

McHale told the panel that at least two of the four witnesses had known mental problems and the other two testified that they had no reason to believe Mudd was involved in a conspiracy.

Ms. Chapelle testified as a legal expert that Samuel Mudd's trial was not constitutional because the doctor, a civilian, was tried in a military court.

Also, the police who arrested Samuel Mudd did not have a warrant, there was no grand jury hearing, and he was not allowed to testify on his own behalf or communicate with his counsel -- all violations of the Bill of Rights, Ms. Chapelle said.

She also questioned the objectivity of the judges on the military tribunal, most of whom had served in the Union Army, and two of whom were personal friends of Lincoln.

One judge was an amateur phrenologist and condemned Mudd because he found a "bump of secrecy on his skull," Ms. Chapelle said. That judge later wrote that his decision was made in part because Samuel Mudd "had the appearance of a natural-born liar."

Eagerly awaiting the outcome of the hearing are 26 grandchildren, 37 great-great-grandchildren, and at least one great-great-great-grandchild -- Zachary Seidman of Baltimore. Six-month-old Zachary attended the hearing with his mother, Elaine Seidman, a ballet teacher.

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