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Patrick Fitzgerald takes on Socrates at mock trial

  • Article by: MICHAEL TARM
  • Associated Press
  • January 31, 2013 - 10:06 PM

CHICAGO - Patrick Fitzgerald has prosecuted mobsters, terrorists, a White House aide and two Illinois governors.

On Thursday, the former top prosecutor got a crack at Socrates. Yes, that Socrates, the Greek philosopher.

Fitzgerald, one of the nation's highest profile federal prosecutors until he recently entered private practice, represented Athens in a do-over of the 399 B.C. trial of Socrates on charges of corrupting the ancient city's youth and disrespecting its gods.

Socrates' legal counsel at the mock trial in Chicago — part of a fundraising event for the National Hellenic Museum — was no slouch himself.

It was Dan Webb, a high-priced lawyer who defended former Gov. George Ryan in a corruption case brought by Fitzgerald. Ryan eventually lost at a trial prosecuted by assistant attorneys working for Fitzgerald.

The result Thursday night? Jurors — an audience of around 1,000 people — found Socrates guilty by a narrow vote. They spared the philosopher death by hemlock, however, and called for a fine instead.

As U.S. Attorney in Chicago, Fitzgerald gained a reputation for getting defendants to plead out before trial. But he told The Associated Press by phone hours before Thursday's event that a last-minute plea deal with Socrates was out of reach.

"Socrates," he explained, "does not seem to be much of a compromiser."

In the 24 centuries since Socrates' trial and execution by poison hemlock, the prevailing sentiment has been that Athens railroaded the 70-year-old gadfly, who was fond of questioning bedrock Athenian assumptions about the world.

Fitzgerald, though, complained that the only extensive account of the trial is from Plato, a student and booster of Socrates.

"I don't think Athenians ever got a fair shake. Plato only gave one side of the story," he said.

Impiety was seen as an egregious crime in ancient Greece, Fitzgerald's co-counsel told jurors Thursday night, because it was thought that an individual's disrespect of the gods could invite their wrath in the form of plagues that would devastate the entire city.

"He dissed Zeus ... He called the Moon dirt," said Pat Collins, another former prosecutor representing Athens. "Messing with the gods brings real harm ... The gods have a memory, and they carry a grudge"

One judge presiding over the retrial was Richard Posner, who sits on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Socrates was "a crank" who "encouraged the brats of Athens," he said, but wasn't a threat to society.

In that vein, another of the presiding judges said he could only see fit to impose a minimal fine in light of the jury's decision Thursday night.

"I'd fine him two bucks and let it go at that," said William Bauer, another federal judge.

The retrial wasn't meant to be a reenactment and so participating attorneys and judges weren't required to don togas or other period garb, Fitzgerald said gratefully earlier in the day.

"There are crimes against nature, too," he laughed. "That would be a crime against nature if we showed up in a togas."

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Follow Michael Tarm at http://www.twitter.com/mtarm.

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