Legal Docket: Man’s best friend

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Monday morning. We’re starting a new week of The World and Everything in ItToday is the 19th of August, 2019. Good morning. I’m Megan Basham.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Well, it’s time for Legal Docket. 

Today, a true story from the annals of legal history.

Now, we’re going to squeeze into this true story a melodramatic Hollywood twist. And we will feature a voice from the past that I have to say I have really missed: the voice of none other than Ronald Reagan. 

Reagan played the part of a Missouri lawyer who would later go on to win election to the U.S. Senate. Reagan plays this role just two years before he got his own political career going, as governor of California in 1967.

BASHAM: Yeah, story elements for anyone to get into: dogs, justice, and what feels good and right. But I think the story also illustrates a grave danger in the law. 

You’ve probably heard it said when a lawyer has the law on her side, well, pound the law. If you don’t have the law on your side, then pound the facts. And if you have neither the law nor the facts, it’s best just to pound the table. 

In other words, find your strongest argument and make that the centerpiece of your case.

EICHER: Right, and pounding the table can take a lot of different forms, but typically, it’s a play to emotions and sometimes it works.

But there’s a problem with that. 

Remember, the symbol for justice is a woman wearing a blindfold. The idea there is that Lady Justice is blind to the power or status of the parties. 

She’s to apply the law without regard to emotion. Just the law, applied evenly. Rich or poor. Frankly, sympathetic or not very.

And in this famous case, that’s not what happened. What did happen proves that when emotion takes over, reason can take flight.

BASHAM: Well, let’s start as our colleague Mary Reichard often does: start with the pertinent facts of the case.

It’s October 1869. Johnson County, Missouri, just four years after the end of the Civil War. 

The night of the 18th, a man named Charles Burden took note of gunfire. He perceived it’d come from about a mile away. It seemed to come from the direction of his neighbor and brother-in-law. That man was a sheep farmer named Leonidas Hornsby.

EICHER: Hornsby had a hard time protecting his sheep. 

Wolves and dogs kept getting them. He’d lost dozens of sheep to the predators, and so he made up his mind to shoot the next one that came onto his property. 

Now, the brothers in law Leonidas Hornsby and Charles Burden had had a good relationship up to this point. 

They’d often hunted together with Burden’s beloved hound dog, Old Drum. Everybody around those parts knew Old Drum as a skilled hunter and retriever. His bark was unique, like a booming drum. 

Hence his name.

BASHAM: Well, the next day after Burden heard the gunfire overnight, Old Drum failed to show up as he normally did.

So he and a friend went looking for Old Drum. 

And it wasn’t long before they came across the terrible sight. 

Lying dead on the banks of a nearby creek was Charles Burden’s beloved tan and white hound. Poor Old Drum appeared to have been shot multiple times.

EICHER: Charles was heartbroken and he had had his suspicions.

Then the evidence began to mount.

Old Drum’s fur was muddied and roughed up. It was pulled against the grain. And that led Charles to conclude the dog’s body had been dragged to the creek bank.

He also noticed the chestnut hairs of another animal were on Old Drum’s body. 

It so happened that Charles’s brother-in-law Leonidas had a mule of that same color.

BASHAM: Charles sued Leonidas for killing his dog, and we should note before going on here that this case really wasn’t as open-and-shut as it may seem at this point. 

By the time the jury got the case, they disagreed on a key point: whether Leonidas had instructed someone else to shoot Old Drum. 

So there had to be a second trial. That one did result in a guilty verdict. The jury awarded Charles $25 plus court costs. Case closed. Right?

EICHER: Wrong. Leonidas appealed.

And he won the appeal. He’d successfully cast doubt to the court that he was the direct cause of Old Drum’s death.

Charles was peeved. He sought a new trial, now the fourth legal proceeding. He thought he had compelling new evidence. 

He certainly had a compelling new lawyer, the politically persuasive lawyer from Sedalia, George Graham Vest. 

Vest got Leonidas to admit he’d told a boy to shoot at a dog. But he denied it was Old Drum the boy had shot.

BASHAM: Problem for Leonidas: No other dog turned up dead, and that hurt his case. But specific evidence and the law was the least of his concerns.

The biggest problem in this famous case is what we said earlier: Reason was about to take flight.

Our legal affairs correspondent Mary Reichard takes it from here.

MARY REICHARD: Reason did take flight, and Charles’ lawyer Vest provided the wings. He did that by very deliberately not talking about the evidence. He didn’t even talk about Old Drum in particular. 

He went straight for the heart in a different way. 

Obviously we don’t have Vest himself, but we do have the partial words of the very powerful, very memorable, and, in many ways, very dangerous closing argument. I’ll start it, and then let none other than the great communicator Ronald Reagan finish the speech. He depicted Vest in an episode of television’s Death Valley Days.

What is a dog? He began. How much is a dog worth? He continued.

The rest is nearly straight quotation from the record:

The best friend a man has may turn against him—become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those nearest and dearest to us—those whom we trust with our happiness and our own good names—may become traitors to their faith. 

The money a man has he may lose. It flees away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. His reputation is sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. Those people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its clouds upon our heads. 

The one absolutely unselfish friend a man can have in this selfish world—the one who never deserts him, the one who never proves ungrateful or treacherous—is his dog.”

REAGAN: A man’s dog will stand by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and sickness. He’ll sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He’ll kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he’ll lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. 

When all other friends desert him, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls apart, his love is as constant as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth into the world an outcast friendless, homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. 

And when the last scene of all comes, when death takes the master in its arms, when his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of Charles for a token $50, plus court costs. Leonidas appealed it, but the state supreme court affirmed.

You’ve heard the phrase, “man’s best friend”? Well, that phrase originated in this court case out of Missouri. 

And today outside the courthouse in Warrensburg, Missouri, stands a statue of Old Drum. 

But I have a question for you: is your heart soft because you applied the law, or because you applied your emotions? 

And that is this week’s Legal Docket.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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