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Dan Abrams

Dan Abrams, chief legal analyst for ABC News and author of "Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him To The Presidency" speaks at Auburn High School Thursday as part of the Seward House Museum's 2018 Elsa Soderberg Distinguished Speaker Series.

AUBURN — Dan Abrams, the chief legal analyst for ABC News and author of "Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him To The Presidency" visited Auburn Thursday to discuss the bestselling book and how some aspects parallel current events.

Hosted as a part of The Seward House Museum's 2018 Elsa Soderberg Distinguished Speakers Series, Abrams explained to the audience at the Auburn High School Auditorium how the book offered insight into Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer and not just as president.

"It's a side of Lincoln I think people have never seen," Abrams said.

The book, co-written by David Fisher, tells the story of Lincoln's last trial as a defense attorney before being elected as president just prior to The Civil War. Despite a lengthy and prestigious legal career, the murder trial is the only case of Lincoln's career with an accompanying transcription, Abrams said.

The case centered around the murder of Greek Crafton by "Peachy" Quinn Harrison in 1859. While self defense laws at the time would "make any stand your ground law look soft" today, Abrams said, the case hinged on Harrison's witnessed pledge to kill Crafton if he were ever attacked.

While Abrams didn't give away too many details of the book itself, he did reveal some of the more interesting aspects of Lincoln's history he learned while researching the book.

According to Abrams, Lincoln was a prime example of a wave of lawyers at the time forging the nation's legal precedent. In case regarding some of America's earliest paved roads, for example, the judge's ruling in Lincoln's favor became a foundation of modern negligence law.

Other cases spoke more personally to Lincoln's ability as an orator and, eventually, a politician.

Another case where Lincoln's impassioned closing arguments in favor of a Revolutionary War widow's claim of pension theft left the jury "half crying and half furious" spoke to his "folksy nature" that helped him relate to voters so well in the presidency.

Abrams was careful to note that, true to his character, Lincoln also paid for the widow's travel fees and refused to be paid himself in addition to winning the case.

One more widely-known case, the Duff Armstrong case, showcased Lincoln's flair for the dramatic. There, he asked a witness detailed questions about the manner in which he saw an alleged attack, getting down to the fullness of the moon and the distance he was while observing.

Once the witness had made it explicitly clear what they remembered, Lincoln pulled out an almanac to prove that the moon was only at its quarter phase, not full as the witness said, proving them to be a liar.

But the lesser known details of the case, like that Lincoln also brought in a doctor to testify that a fall could have cause the fatal injury, or using a replica of the alleged weapon to convince the jury it couldn't be deadly, illustrated what a methodical, expert lawyer the future president was, Abrams said.

In a Q&A session, audience members took advantage of the opportunity to ask Abrams —who is also known for his experience as a legal reporter as well as co-anchor of ABC's "Nightline" and "The Abrams Report" on MSNBC— about more modern legal events.

On the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Abrams said that, agree or disagree with his policies, Sessions had a demonstrably successful legal and political career.

His replacement, Matthew Whitaker, Abrams said, has no such history of success to make him qualified for the job as the nation's top law enforcement official. Instead, his only qualification appears to be his repeated statements against Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

"That's a sad choice for the country," Abrams said.

That argument, Abrams said, isn't purely political but is rather about qualifications. Opposite to Whitaker, he said, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was firmly qualified for the post despite possible policy agreements or the controversy surrounding his appointment.

In response to another question regarding the White House's decision to ban CNN reporter Jim Acosta, Abrams decried the concept of fake news.

The president would be well within his rights to say the media doesn't always cover him fairly, Abrams said. But by instead referring to it as fake news, when in most cases what's reported is provably true, the president was crossing a line, Abrams said.

"When the president starts banning media from the White House because he doesn't like the questions, that's a problem," Abrams said.

The consistent point Abrams said he tries to make is to make sure the rule of law doesn't get lost to personal power and the anger frequent in politics today.

"I hope there's a way to continue the dialogue where we can all use the rule of law as a thread that connects it," Abrams said.

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Staff writer Ryan Franklin can be reached at (315) 282-2252 or ryan.franklin@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @RyanNYFranklin

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