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Socrates Found Not Guilty in NHM Mock Trial

Trial Socrates NHM
The Chicago audience of 500 became the jurors who decided Socrates’ fate by placing a white chip in a bag for innocence and a blue chip for guilt. Credit: National Hellenic Museum

Socrates, the philosopher from Athens who is credited as the founder of Western philosophy, was found not guilty in a mock trial conducted by the National Hellenic Museum (NHM).

Robert A. Clifford and Sarah F. King, partners of Clifford Law Offices, and Dan Webb, Co-Executive Chairman of Winston & Strawn, defended Socrates before hundreds of jurors in a three-hour event.

Socrates was “re-tried” on charges of breaking Athenian laws 2,500 years ago when he was found guilty and put to death at the age of 70 in Ancient Greece.

Clifford and Webb defended Socrates 10 years ago on charges of corrupting young people with his ideas and disrespecting the Greek gods and lost, although Socrates’ life was spared then.

In the real trial in 399 B.C., Socrates was put to death by hemlock. This year was a much different outcome, with King examining Socrates on the witness stand and two groups of jurors finding him innocent on the charges.

Trial Socrates NHM
Actor John Kapelos portrayed Socrates at the mock trial. Credit: National Hellenic Museum

In a convincing closing argument, Clifford, founder and senior partner of the firm, who told the group he grew up on “the south side of Athens,” said, “He did not disrespect the gods. He engaged in a purposeful examination of his own life, and he encouraged his allies and the young men that were around him to do the same.

“There is not a single shred of evidence to support impiety or that he attempted to introduce different gods. There is not a single shred of evidence that he corrupted the youth by telling them at some points you need to question democracy, and he inspired the youth through self-examination. … … We all grow as a society by engaging in discourse with our friends. … He said we should all strive to be good.

“We should all strive to do good deeds and that’s what he preached to those young men. He told you we should all perform acts of charity; we should all engage in good acts. And he told you that it was his duty as a philosopher to seek truth and to question everything. And for that he should be put to death?”

As in ancient Greece, the Chicago audience of 500 became the jurors who decided Socrates’ fate by placing a white chip in a bag for innocence and a blue chip for guilt.

They were collected at the end and then placed on a scales of justice where it was overwhelmingly ‘not guilty’. The defense team immediately hugged each other in success because it meant Socrates was free to go and continue to speak publicly about the fragilities of democracy.

A 13-member jury found Socrates not guilty 10-3 in the mock trial

A 13-member “celebrity” jury on stage also found him not guilty 10-3. The four judges who heard the case from benches across Chicago found him guilty, with U.S. Federal District Court Judge Jorge Alonso of the Northern District of Illinois finding Socrates not guilty on the second charge of corrupting Athens’ youth. He found him guilty on the first charge of impiety or disrespecting the gods, as did the other judges: Illinois Supreme Court Joy Cunningham, and Cook County Circuit Court Judges Anthony C. Kyriakopoulos and Anna H. Demacopoulos.

Judge Charles P. Korcoras of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois delivered an opening greeting for the crowd, explaining the importance of the lessons still to be learned from ancient Greece, including the foundation of democracy and trial by jury.

Webb argued in his opening statement that Socrates was, in fact, a war hero, and even became a general in ancient Greece, fighting in three battles to defend democracy.

“Socrates is not accused of tyranny whatsoever, and yet think for a moment about everyone who taught someone in school: if later some of their students do bad deeds, are the teachers responsible for those bad deeds? Because that’s what they are saying about Socrates.” He went on to say that Socrates believed that the gods are not vindictive, but instead benevolent, and that he respected them; the philosopher asked others to question the true nature of the gods, which relies on the freedom of speech.

Patrick Collins partner at King & Spalding, prosecuted the People’s case along with Tinos Diamantatos of Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, and Julie Porter of Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter PLLC.

Actor and Second City alumnus John Kapelos (The Shape of Water, The Breakfast Club, Forever Knight) portrayed Socrates.

The Trial of Socrates has fascinated and troubled generations who have struggled to comprehend the death of one of history’s greatest philosophers at the hands of a lawful jury.

Socrates’ pursuit of wisdom was seen as a threat to the survival of Athenian democracy, and he was charged with impiety and corrupting the youth. The Trial of Socrates invites us to consider anew the fragility of democracy, the limits of freedom, and the imperfection of human justice.

NHM trial series

The NHM Trial Series highlights the enduring relevance and value of Greek philosophy and thought.

Among the series’ highlights was the trial of Helen of Troy. Was Helen of Troy, known since antiquity as “The face that launched a thousand ships” at the start of the Trojan War, guilty of adultery?

It also revived the ancient Greek trial of Hippocrates. Prosecutors tried to prove that Hippocrates was guilty of violating his oath when administering medical care to the dying King of the ancient Greek city of Thebes.

Now, the NHM has recreated the trial of Socrates, which took place in 399 BC during the tumultuous period following the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.

Related: Socrates, the Founder of Western Philosophy

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