Dispatch: Socrates Found Not Guilty in the Trial of the Sesquibimillennium

The People of Athens vs. Socrates, perhaps the most famous trial in history, took place in the year 399BCE. The great philosopher Socrates was charged with impiety (failing to acknowledge the gods venerated by Athens) and corruption of the youth of Athens (encouraging them to question Athens’ fundamental values). Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. He was 70 at the time of his death. Now 2500 years later, Socrates gets a new trial in Chicago, presented by the National Hellenic Museum at the Harris Theater.

A roster of well-known Chicago lawyers and judges portrayed judges, defense and prosecuting attorneys. Socrates himself, who didn’t testify in his own defense in his original trial, took the stand in keeping with his US Constitutional rights. The philosopher was played by actor John Kapelos, a Second City alum (The Shape of Water, The Breakfast Club and a long list of TV and movie credits). Kapelos grew (or wore) a full white beard, similar to Socrates’. There was no script; this was not a theatrical performance. Each lawyer and judge and the defendant researched and prepared their own remarks. 

Defense attorney Robert A. Clifford with his client, Socrates (John Kapelos). Image courtesy of Clifford Law Offices.

A sesquibimillennium (yes, that is a word, sort of) after his original trial, Socrates was found not guilty of the charges in a trial that treated ancient controversies with modern legal methods. Attorneys gave opening and closing statements, questioned the witness, and the presiding judge instructed the jury on their obligations. 

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

The Trial

Opening statements were made by prosecutor Patrick Collins for the People of Athens and by Dan Webb for the defense. In his testimony, Kapelos as Socrates insisted he is a philosopher, not a teacher. “It’s my duty as a philosopher,” he said, “to seek the truth and question everything.” He also said he is willing to die for his right to speak and to question. 

After closing statements by Tinos Diamantatos for the prosecution and Robert Clifford for the defense, presiding judge Anna Demacopoulos gave instructions to the jury, who left the stage to deliberate. Upon their return, the jury of 12 citizens and one alternate voted 10 to 3 to exonerate Socrates. The audience of 500 citizens voted by choosing a chip (blue for guilty, white for not guilty) and placing it in an appropriate bag. (Since it was Chicago, there were jokes about only voting once.)

Despite admonitions by the judge and the prosecution that we (the jury and the audience) were to decide the issue based on Athenian law and not on our 21st century predilections, it appeared that both jury and audience ignored that instruction. The audience votes were weighed, not counted, on the scales of justice. When the blue chips were dropped on the scale, the scale dropped an inch or so from the weight. When the white chips were poured on to the second scale, it crashed to the table top. (Voting by audience members is historically appropriate because juries in Athens were very large, numbering in the hundreds.)

Prosecution attorney Tinos Diamantatos presents the People's case against Socrates to the jury. Image courtesy of National Hellenic Museum.

The four judges found Socrates guilty by a vote of three to one. U.S. Federal District Court Judge Jorge Alonso of the Northern District of Illinois was the sole jurist to find Socrates not guilty on the second charge of corrupting Athens’ youth. He found him guilty on the first charge of impiety, or disrespecting the Greek gods, as did the other three judges: Illinois Supreme Court Justice Joy V. Cunningham, and Cook County Circuit Court Judges Anthony C. Kyriakopoulos and Anna Demacopoulos. 

The successful defense was led by attorneys Robert A. Clifford (Clifford Law Offices); Dan K. Webb (Winston & Strawn), who made an outstanding opening statement without a note; and Sarah King (Clifford Law Offices). The People’s case against Socrates was presented by attorneys Patrick Collins, a former federal prosecutor (King & Spalding); Tinos Diamantatos (Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP); and Julie Porter (Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter, PLLC). The event was emceed by TV and radio personality Andrea Darlas.

Judges and attorneys in The Trial of Socrates.

The attorneys could not resist noting contemporary analogies, which were enjoyed by the audience. In his opening statement, Collins noted that Socrates, sometimes called a gadfly, was an ancient TikTok influencer. He also mentioned the modern curse that the gods (or a goat) brought down upon the heads of the Chicago Cubs, which lasted for 70 years. In his closing statement, attorney Clifford said, “If I didn’t know better, I would think this was a trial of the January 6 insurrectionists.” He  told the group that he grew up on “the south side of Athens,” and continued, “Socrates 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 that he corrupted the youth by telling them at some points you need to question democracy, and he inspired the youth through self-examination.” (The Clifford Law Offices posted their own story on the trial, which included some additional quotes from attorneys.)

The Backstory

The primary source accounts of the trial are by two of Socrates’ students: The Apology of Socrates by Plato, and The Apology of Socrates to the Jury by Xenophon of Athens.

The trial came at a perilous time in Athens history. The 25-year Peloponnesian War ended with Sparta defeating Athens. A pro-Spartan oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants was installed as a puppet government and ruled for eight months, which was a reign of terror for Athens. Apparently Socrates’ connection to the Thirty Tyrants was unclear and that was one reason for the charges against him.

The National Hellenic Museum Trial Series has highlighted the enduring relevance and value of Greek thought and history since its inception in 2013. Since 2016, NHM trials have aired on public television and received regional Emmy nominations. This year’s trial will be broadcast on WTTW Chicago during the 2023-24 season. 

NHM’s Trial Series events are qualified by the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission for continuing legal education (CLE) credit. Attorneys attending these events can register for CLE credit on site.

The mission of the National Hellenic Museum (NHM) is to share Greek history, art, culture and the Greek American story. The museum, founded in 1983, is located in Chicago’s historic Greektown neighborhood. For more information, visit nationalhellenicmuseum.org or call 312-655-1234.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.