Washington Won't Hang -- Mock Court Upholds Right To Revolt Against Oppression

LONDON - George Washington will not hang at dawn.

A British-dominated court, deciding that the American colonies had the right to revolt, acquitted Washington last night of charges of treason, gave him back his sword and sent him home.

It was a mock trial in the oak-paneled panoply of Lincoln Inn, with British barristers trying to prove Washington was a traitor to the crown, and a mostly Chicago-based team of defense lawyers out to save his neck and justify the American Revolution.

The judges - two British and one American - were real. So were the lawyers. George Washington and his witnesses, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were played by Philadelphia-based actors who portray them for a living. The only prosecution witness, the prime minister of the era, Lord North, was played with gusto by a British professor of American history.

It was a mixture of old and new, trial and drama, reality and make-believe. But behind it was the issue of the right of a people to revolt against oppression. In the end, this right prevailed.

The leading judge, Lord Bridge of Harlech, ruled that while ``the facts were beyond dispute'' - Washington indeed led a revolt - the king and Parliament had forfeited the colonies' allegiance through laws that robbed them of their liberties.

``How could these measures be regarded as otherwise than intolerably repressive?'' Bridge said.

The British were relaxed and ironic, treating the trial as sport.

The leading British barrister, Sydney Kentridge, noted at one point that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, ``a date which there is no particular reason to remember or note.''

The Americans, by contrast, were in deadly earnest, appalled that they might lose America's greatest hero to the hangman's noose. While Kentridge quipped, they fought like tigers.

``I'm not sure we could have gone home if we'd lost,'' one lawyer said.

The American team was led by Chicago lawyers Michael Coffield and James Figliulo, aided by WLS-TV anchorman and lawyer Joel Daly of Chicago and three New Jersey attorneys. The trial was conceived when Coffield and Figliulo accepted a challenge from a British judge in Washington last summer.

The decision by the British Broadcasting Corp. to televise the trial raised the costs and the tensions. The Americans were fighting for their national honor.

The pretense was that Washington had returned voluntarily to London in 1779 to answer the charge of treason. But the modern world kept intervening.

The British wore wigs, and ``Washington'' wore his colonial uniform. But sniffer dogs checked the hall for bombs - Bridge once sentenced six alleged IRA terrorists to prison.

In 1779, Washington probably would have been hanged. In 1990, he was allowed to testify for himself.

Kentridge scored points off Jefferson's ownership of slaves. Lord North battered the defense with the arrogance and upper-class accent that often cow Americans.

Kentridge slipped in references to Britain's unpopular poll tax and asked Washington to look ahead ``four-score years'' to the possibility that the U.S. itself might use force to quell a rebellion.

Coffield drew the sharpest historical parallel when he said that, if Washington's ideals prevail, ``a century or two from now, free Americans and free Englishmen may be required to draw a line in the sand for freedom.''