Trial Reenactments Return to the NDNY

Published: December 28, 2023

More than 100 people attended an historical trial reenactment at the Albany federal courthouse on the evening of October 25, 2023 – the first reenactment since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic three and a half years prior.

Courtroom scene

Assistant Federal Public Defender Gene
Primomo portraying Leander Quint, an attorney who represented the detained Chinese women (photo credit: Kris Qua)

The reemergence of historical reenactments was a happy occasion, though the subject matter was somber – Chy Lung v. Freeman, an 1874 trial in San Francisco involving the detention of 22 female Chinese passengers, under California law, on suspicion of being prostitutes. The case, which culminated in a Supreme Court decision in favor of the Chinese women, involved issues of due process, human rights, and the power of the states to regulate immigration.

As always, United States District Judge Mae A. D’Agostino directed the reenactment, which featured about 30 actors including NDNY judges, court staff, attorneys, and Albany Law School students. United States District Judge Anne M. Nardacci and Times Union Editor Casey Seiler played the narrators, while United States Magistrate Judges Christian F. Hummel and Daniel J. Stewart, and United States Bankruptcy Judge Robert E. Littlefield, Jr., portrayed judges.

The re-enactment focused on how the Chinese women were treated and perceived by California officials, as well as the lack of any evidence supporting the suspicion that these women were prostitutes. (Ultimately, in 1875, the Supreme Court sided with the Chinese women, holding that only the federal government, not the states, had the power to regulate immigration.) To underscore the Chinese women’s plight, several actors playing the women – including United States Magistrate Judge Thérèse Wiley Dancks, and courtroom deputies Tara Burtt and Maria Blunt – sat in a cordoned-off area marked “PRISONERS,” and repeatedly and loudly proclaimed their innocence.

Courtroom scene

Several actors playing the detained Chinese women – including United States Magistrate Judge Thérèse Wiley Dancks (seated in second row), and courtroom deputies Tara Burtt and Maria Blunt (seated in front) – sat in a cordoned-off area marked “PRISONERS,” and repeatedly and loudly proclaimed their innocence (photo credit: Kris Qua)

Both the trial re-enactment in the James T. Foley Courthouse’s beautiful ceremonial courtroom, and the catered reception that followed on the first floor, were open to the public. Singer Alcia Graham, who had previously become a naturalized U.S. citizen in the ceremonial courtroom, opened the event with a beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. The event benefitted from a preview by Paul Grondahl at the Times Union.

The script for the trial reenactment originated from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s Justice for All Courts and the Community Initiative, which maintains a web site with eight trial re-enactment ideas. Thus far, including Chy Lung, Judge D’Agostino has directed four of them, the others being: the NDNY trial of Susan B. Anthony; a First Amendment case involving Susan Russo, a Rochester-area teacher who was fired for refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance; and the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.