The Power of Public Opinion

The influence of a gaping and curious public can have no effect on the conduct of the Judge Advocate in this matter. . . . The hallowed grave of a dead son is no more sacred than the grave of a military reputation and there are a great many military reputations at stake in this hearing.

—Major Harry Leonard [pg. 176]

Major Leonard proved to be a formidable judge advocate and an ideal one to handle Rosa Sutton in what began as an impartial investigation into the facts surrounding Sutton’s death. As it turned out, Rosa needed to be handled—she was strong minded and just as determined as he was to defend values that were (and are) sacred to a large number of Americans. So Leonard had a plan to attack her credibility. But the “curious public” did have a strong influence on his actions at the inquiry in the summer of 1909. Both of his comments reveal his concern about his own reputation, and his awareness that his job was to be impartial; at the same time, as a Marine Corps officer, his actions were also driven by his loyalty to his fellow Marines. This is a timeless conflict that has long governed the exigencies of military justice and it plays out in this case in a way that makes the subject fascinating and telling.

America’s service academies—then as now—are always scrutinized more than any other institutions of higher education in this country. Because so many citizens had a stake in what happened in this case, the government’s representatives fought for the hearts and minds of Americans inside this military courtroom. The Marines’ code of conduct was just as important to them as Rosa Sutton’s mission was to her. So the nation’s newspapers shaped the dialogue and the lawyers’ closing arguments both wthin the courtroom and outside of it.