Newly relevant case of Dr. Mudd is back in court

Issues of medical ethics and authority of military tribunals raised

September 19, 2002|By Katharine Q. Seelye | Katharine Q. Seelye,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Just blocks from Ford's Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, members of the Mudd family came to a federal courthouse recently in one more round of a 137-year-old case in which they are trying to clear the family name.

Sitting in an appellate court were 10 of the 101 direct descendants of Samuel A. Mudd, the Maryland doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth, who had broken his left leg when he jumped down on the stage of Ford's Theater after shooting the president.

Booth and an accomplice fled on horseback to Mudd's house, where, in addition to setting Booth's leg, the doctor gave the two food, lodging and fresh horses, which allowed them to evade federal authorities for 11 more days.

Mudd's supporters maintain that he did not know Booth and learned only later of the assassination, and when he did, he alerted Union authorities. Nonetheless, he was arrested and tried before a military tribunal, which convicted him of aiding and abetting the assassins and sentenced him to life in prison.

The phrase "your name is mud" is often associated with the doctor, although it was in use before he became notorious. Still, historians say, it gained currency with his post-assassination prominence.

Family views

Some in the Mudd family maintain that Mudd was wrongly convicted and should not have been tried in a military tribunal in the first place. They say they still feel the sting of a sullied reputation. Their quest raises metaphysical questions about the fairness of guilt by association, particularly as it echoes down through the generations in what one Mudd descendant called "a geometric progression of pain."

Their goal in coming here to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit was to have the record of Mudd's military trial, which is in the National Archives, "corrected" to reflect what they say is his innocence.

Court arguments concerned their standing to seek such a correction and the intricacies of the statute that provides for such corrections. The court is expected to rule this fall.

But not all Mudds feel tainted. Roger Mudd, the longtime television journalist, said in a telephone interview from his home in Virginia that he had hardly suffered because of his family name. "I made a lot of money as a television newsman," he said.

Roger Mudd also said that he was not convinced of his ancestor's innocence. "It is hard to believe he did not know" that his patient was the assassin. He noted that several scholars believe that Samuel Mudd was central to the conspiracy to kill Lincoln even though popular sentiment appears to be with the Mudds.

"It is true," Roger Mudd said, "that through the years, when people realized we had a connection, nine out of 10 would say, `He really got a raw deal.'"

The case also raises questions of medical ethics and a doctor's responsibilities to a criminal who needs medical treatment, a question rekindled four years ago when Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who is also a doctor, treated the gunman who killed two Capitol Hill police officers.

And it raises compelling questions for America after Sept. 11, where President Bush has revived the option of military tribunals for terrorist suspects but explicitly exempted American citizens.

In the Mudd case, the government is arguing the opposite - that American citizens can be tried in military tribunals. If the court sides with the government, the case could have implications for the treatment of Americans who are being held as "enemy combatants" and so far do not face the prospect of military tribunals.

Mudd argued at the time of his conviction that a military tribunal did not have jurisdiction over his case because he was a civilian and a U.S. citizen and that civilian courts were in session.

Mudd wanted to be tried by a jury of his peers, believing they would be more likely to acquit him than would a military tribunal.

Petition denied

In 1868, a judge denied Mudd's petition, saying that Lincoln was commander in chief and that his assassination was thus an act of war. Mudd appealed the case to the Supreme Court, but a few months later, President Andrew Johnson pardoned him, and his case was dismissed. But the family never felt the issue was resolved legally.

The technical issue discussed in court recently was whether Mudd's great-grandson, Thomas B. Mudd, a teacher, now 61, who picked up the baton of the family cause after his 101-year-old father died in May, has standing to challenge Samuel Mudd's tribunal record.

The Mudd family lawyer, Philip A. Gagner, argued that Samuel Mudd's conviction in the military tribunal has "a continuing impact on the Mudd family" and that the tribunal did not have jurisdiction in the case.

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