Report on The Trial of Socrates

Last night we attended the re-trial of Socrates sponsored by the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago. The trial was presided over by U.S. Appellate Judge Richard Posner, along with U.S. Appellate Judge William J. Bauer and Cook County Judge Anna Demacopoulos.


The audience of approximately 1,000 people was advised that the charges against Socrates included corrupting the youths of ancient Athens and disrespecting its gods. Although there was a panel of distinguished jurors invited to the proceedings, the audience was also empowered to vote, just as the crowd had been in Athens some 2400 years ago.

When we saw that Patrick Fitzgerald, the former U.S. attorney, was on the prosecution team, we knew Socrates was in trouble. Fitzgerald did not disappoint; he was terrific, and the audience actually voted to uphold the conviction.

Patrick Fitzgerald

Patrick Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald was ably seconded by former assistant U.S. attorney Patrick Collins, who pointed out that fear of the wrath of Athenian gods was not to be taken lightly. As evidence, he reminded this Chicago audience of the “curse” put on the Cubs after a Greek bar owner was thrown out of Wrigley Field with his goat during the 1945 World Series. Collins quipped,

They haven’t won a World Series in 100 years. The gods have a memory. They carry a grudge.”

The defense team (consisting of former U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb and personal injury attorney Bob Clifford) spent too much time on a “freedom of speech” argument, which was not germane to 399 B.C. Athens. They also made much of Socrates’ record as a soldier in previous years, which, they contended, proved his loyalty to the Republic. But who, Fitzgerald countered, was in the foxhole with Socrates? His pupil Alcibiades, one of “The Thirty Tyrants” who took over Athens in 403 BC. (Socrates had also been a friend of and teacher to others of the extremists, including Critias and Charmides. Corrupting the youth indeed!)

At the end of the presentations by the prosecution and defense, the mini-panel of jurors was split, six to six. The audience, however, putting itself back in the context of the times, voted guilty. It could not, however, overcome its loathing to put a “seventy-year old loudmouth” to death, and voted to fine him instead.

Dan Webb

Dan Webb

After the voting was concluded, the judges weighed in with their opinions. Judge Posner made a much more compelling case for the defense than did Socrates’ lawyers, but by then it was too late. Socrates had escaped the hemlock, but he would be paying a hefty fine to the City of Athens.

As a somewhat amusing postscript to this story, we note that back in March of 2011, Judge Posner said (referring to mock trials of fictitious characters conducted by Supreme Court justices) they don’t “contribute to anyone’s enlightenment”:

’That’s the problem with presidents and Supreme Court justices and billionaires. They think that because they are successful in one sphere they’re experts in everything,’ Judge Posner says. Supreme Court justices should stop “preening” and return to “their dignified anonymity,’ he says.”

Judge Richard Posner

Judge Richard Posner

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