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Steinberg: How could we find Socrates guilty?

Patrick J. Fitzgerald left Patrick M. Collins acting as counsel for City Athens participate mock trial Socrates with federal judge

Patrick J. Fitzgerald, left, and Patrick M. Collins, acting as counsel for the City of Athens, participate in a mock trial of Socrates, with federal judge Richard A. Posner presiding at the Palmer House Hilton on Thursday, January 31, 2013. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:33AM

Would you condemn Socrates?

Had you been among the 500 jurors in 399 B.C. at the trial of the philosopher, charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and embracing new gods, would you have found him guilty? Could you?

Honestly, the question never crossed my mind when I agreed to be a juror at the trial that the National Hellenic Museum staged Thursday night. I wasn’t even there for Socrates, per se, but to witness in action the trio of superlative legal firepower assembled for the occasion by the museum — revered 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner, feared former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, and courtroom ace Dan Webb.

Nor was I alone. The slightly astounded Hellenic Museum sold 900 tickets at $100 a pop and had to move the trial from their building to the Palmer House ballroom. The overflow crowd spilled into the upper balconies. Hundreds more had to be turned away.

As to why high-priced lawyers — Fitzgerald is now with Skaaden, Webb is chairman of Winston & Strawn — would represent a man as famously poor as Socrates . . .

“I do wrongful death case work,” said Robert Clifford, the personal injury attorney, who joined Webb in the defense, “and to me this is the most wrongful death in all history.”

“The lawyers are going to be very serious, because this is a capital case,” announced Posner, reminding the jurors, and he enlisted the entire audience as jurors, “Athens didn’t have a First Amendment, no burden of proof, no hearsay rule, nothing of the sort.”

“May it please the court, members of the jury,” a somber Fitzgerald began. “Make no mistake about it: Socrates is guilty. Socrates is guilty of disrespecting the Gods, by doing so he has endangered the people of Athens. Socrates is guilty of corrupting the youth, and by doing so he has endangered the existence of Athens. Socrates is guilty, period.”

He argued that we had to view the case from the perspective of Athens in 399 B.C., having just tossed off the yoke of tyrants who were taught by Socrates, and not through the hindsight of history, which lionized him.

“History got it wrong. History has been unfair to my client, Athens,” said Fitzgerald, pointing out that the only eye-witness to the trial to write a book was Plato, Socrates’ protege. “The dialogue he wrote was really a monologue; he only quoted his friend,” said Fitzgerald. “Put aside what history tells you, to be fair to the Athenians ... a just culture, the first democracy, egalitarian. When you don’t have a full transcript, give them the benefit of the doubt.”

In Athens’ view, Socrates endangered all.

“You had the right to speak, you had no right to disrespect God,” said Fitzgerald. “We have to put ourselves back in Athens in 399 [B.C.] when the world was different ... If any one person in society disrespected God, the wrath came down on everybody. ... They believed if somebody in society wronged God, they all paid the price. The price was not a lightning bolt. It was a plague. ... If you’re an Athenian, you’ve seen the plague wiping out your city state. You lost a war because of this plague. Your vaunted navy is reduced to mere nothing. The walls of the city are torn down. In the last 10 years before the trial, democracy has been overthrown twice by oligarchs and tyrants, people that Socrates taught.”

Clifford, perhaps unused to criminal work, offered a defense that, in my view, paled compared to the prosecution’s case. Webb was as strong as his reputation. “What is it that the accusers have presented to you?” he asked.

When my turn came, I had to vote “guilty.” The dozen official jurors split. The audience voted by dropping colored discs in bags for Guilty or Not Guilty. When the discs were poured onto literal scales of justice, they tipped toward guilt. Add to Patrick Fitzgerald’s resume of success, of putting away mobsters and terrorists, that he could convince most Chicagoans at a Greek museum function to condemn the greatest Greek ever.

During the penalty phase, several dozen audience members even called for death, but Socrates got off with a fine. Justice served, court adjourned for wine and hors d’oeuvres, while I went to face my own judgement.

“How could you?” my wife gasped, with more earnestness than I would have liked. She gestured around the room. “Nothing’s changed. They’re still voting him guilty.”

Behind us, a young man — bearded, mid-20s — was even more upset, shouting at the departing audience. “You have condemned a man!” he cried, his voice muffled in the ballroom. Everyone ignored him, but I went over.

“Socrates understood, on his death ... he could have ran,” the man sputtered, weeping. “He stayed and drank the vial of hemlock ....”

I left him, sobbing quietly, and joined the reception, wondering about the intersection of the individual and the state, of law and justice, authority and duty. Twenty-four hundred years on, Socrates is still rattling us.

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