Among the most powerful of his jury efforts were his speeches against Bird for the murder of Cameron, and against Phelps, the notorious highway robber and murderer. Both were convicted. The former owed his conviction, as General Foote, who defended him with great zeal and ability thought, to the transcendent eloquence of Prentiss. He was justly convicted, however, as his confession, afterwards made, proved. Phelps was one of the most daring and desperate of ruffians. He confronted his prosecutor and the court, not only with composure, but with scornful and malignant defiance. When Prentiss rose to speak, and for some time afterwards, the criminal scowled upon him a look of hate and insolence. But when the orator, kindling with his subject, turned upon him and poured down a stream of burning invective, like lava, upon his head; when he depicted the villainy and barbarity of his atrocities; when he pictured in dark and dismal colors the fate which awaited him, and the awful judgment to be pronounced at another bar upon his crimes, when he should be confronted with his innocent victims; when he fixed his gaze of concentrated power upon him, the strong man's face relaxed, his eyes faltered and fell, until at length, unable to bear up any longer, self-convicted, he hid his head beneath the bar, and exhibited a picture of ruffian audacity cowed beneath the spell of true courage and triumphant genius. Though convicted, he was not hung. He broke jail and resisted recapture so desperately that, although he was encumbered with his fetters, his pursuers had to kill him in self-defense, or permit his escape. In his defense of criminals, in that large class of cases in which something of elevation or bravery in some sort redeemed the lawlessness of the act, where murder was committed under a sense of outrage, or upon sudden resentment, and in a fair combat, his chivalrous spirit upheld the public sentiment, which, if it did not justify that sort of “wild justice,” could not be brought to punish it ignominiously. His appeals fell like flames on thoseSouls made of fire and children of sun,I have never heard of but one client of his who was convicted on the charge of homicide, and he was convicted of one of its lesser degrees. So successful was he that the expression— “Prentiss couldn't clear him,” was a hyperbole that expressed the desperation of a criminal's fortunes. Mr. Prentiss was employed only in important cases, and generally
With whom revenge was virtue.
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