Prosecuting Socrates All Over Again Next Thursday, Chicago's National Hellenic Museum will try to give Socrates a more fair trial than what he got in 399 BC, when he was sentenced to death for impiety. Some of the the country's most stellar legal names are involved in the mock trial. Host Scott Simon speaks with former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.
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Prosecuting Socrates All Over Again

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Prosecuting Socrates All Over Again

Prosecuting Socrates All Over Again

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the criminal justice system of ancient Athens, the people will be represented by two separate, but equally important former prosecutors. This is their story.


SIMON: Next Thursday, Chicago's National Hellenic Museum will try to give Socrates a more fair trial than the one he got in 399 BC. He was sentenced to death for impiety. Some of the Chicago's - and the country's - most stellar legal names are involved in next week's mock trial. Richard Posner, the famed jurist, will be judge. Daniel K. Webb, who once prosecuted Chicago judges on the take and Iran-Contra defendants, will defend Socrates. The man who will put the philosopher in the dock is Patrick Fitzgerald. Mr. Fitzgerald is the former U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois who won convictions against two Illinois governors, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, and the Gambino crime family.

Errr. Patrick Fitzgerald joins us from his office in Chicago. Thanks for being with us.

PATRICK FITZGERALD: Happy to be here. And I would also say that I'll be joined next week in trying Mr. Socrates by Patrick Collins.

SIMON: So, to your mind, Mr. Fitzgerald, what's this case all about? What's at stake here?

FITZGERALD: I think what's at stake, obviously, I think is giving the Athenians a fair shake in history, and that I think people have jumped to the conclusion that the city of Athens sort of wrongfully convicted Socrates. And part of what Mr. Collins and I will do next week is to take on the uphill battle of explaining the context of the trial and conviction.

SIMON: So, this will be under current Chicago laws rather than ancient Athens?

FITZGERALD: Well, I think the rules frankly are a bit loose, so I think we're going to try to do it as the law was in effect at the time in Athens - with a little poetic license.

SIMON: It sounds like you have a real feel for the position of ancient Athens in this.

FITZGERALD: No, I don't, but I'm going to have to fake it.


SIMON: All right. So, what if Dan Webb, the defense attorney, says this is clearly double jeopardy. Socrates swallowed Hemlock?

FITZGERALD: Well, I don't think Dan would have thought of that, unless he listens to your show.

SIMON: What do you mean unless he listens to our show?

FITZGERALD: When he listens to the show, yes. But we will now prepare for that argument. But I think that double jeopardy is probably not their strongest claim. I think in the prior trials of Socrates, the prosecution has not fared well in modern times. So, I think Patrick Collins and I are looking at the under-over. We're hoping to get maybe seven votes out of 500. And in Chicago tradition, we're going to invite some relatives there to vote.

SIMON: Have you had any feelers for a plea bargain from Socrates?

FITZGERALD: We were open to that discussion. And so, if Mr. Webb and Mr. Bob Clifford are listening, we're hoping to cut a deal. And it would disappoint the audience, who paid for a show, but I think we'd be willing to talk about perhaps a deferred prosecution agreement.

SIMON: In our time, I think the key to Socrates wisdom is taken to be that Socrates said he was not the wisest man in Athens, and of course that just confirmed that he was because he was the only man who was aware of his limitations in ignorance. How do lawyers react to that?

FITZGERALD: Oh, I think there's a lot to be said for that, in that Socrates asked a lot of questions and gave fewer answers. But I think a lot of what happened in the trial of Socrates was interesting history. For example, the people talk about the death penalty, and I think what they miss at the time was that Athenian law required a jury to pick between the two options. So, if the government asked for death and the defendant asked for something different, they couldn't come up with a third option. And so since Socrates put before the jury his request that he be given free meals for life, they really had little choice. Either pay a man convicted of a crime free meals for life or put him death. And so I think part of what will take place next week is to try to put people back in the perspective of the Athenians, where Socrates gave them little choice and had to vote when it came to the penalty phase.

SIMON: He was 70 years old. I mean, how much could he eat?

FITZGERALD: I wouldn't know.

SIMON: Lawyerly answer. You are known, obviously, for your meticulous preparation. Can you give us some insight into how you've been preparing for this trial?

FITZGERALD: I'll give you some insight into how we will be preparing for this trial. We've been going back and reading Plato and reading the historical text in English. There is a rumor that Judge Posner may have been reading in the ancient Greek. And I can tell you that none of the four lawyers have learned ancient Greek in the last week. So we may be at a deficit when Judge Posner asks questions. But otherwise, we've been reading the prior proceedings and we've agreed on what the trial record will be. And we have a sort of gentleman's agreement that they'll be some liberties taken, so that people can feel free to make arguments so we can make this as engaging as possible.

SIMON: Mr. Fitzgerald, I have to ask. Do you have any concern that after prosecuting Socrates, you won't be able to get a plate of taramosolata in Chicago ever again?

FITZGERALD: That is a concern, but hopefully if I dress very casually with a baseball cap and sunglasses, I can still go in and get my saganaki when I need it.

SIMON: Patrick Fitzgerald, former U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois, and next week he will prosecute Socrates, together with an all-star legal cast at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago. Mr. Fitzgerald, thanks so much for being with us.

FITZGERALD: You're welcome.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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