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updated: 2/1/2013 8:38 AM

Fitzgerald wins conviction of Socrates

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  • Patrick Fitzgerald, left, and Socrates.

      Patrick Fitzgerald, left, and Socrates.
    Photo illustration

  • Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald defends the city of Athens in a retrial of Socrates on Thursday night as a fundraiser for Chicago's National Hellenic Museum.

      Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald defends the city of Athens in a retrial of Socrates on Thursday night as a fundraiser for Chicago's National Hellenic Museum.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

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.

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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 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? The jury -- an audience of more than 1,000 people -- found Socrates guilty but spared him death by hemlock and fined him 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 appeared to be 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, he explained, because it was thought that an individual's disrespect of the gods could invite their wrath in the form of plagues and other calamities.

"If you criticized the gods, then bad things happen to everyone," he said.

Among the judges presiding over the retrial was Richard Posner, who sits on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the jurors were several state luminaries, including state Senate President John Cullerton.

The retrial wasn't meant to be a re-enactment. It was meant to be a modern take on the famous case, meaning participating attorneys and judges didn't don like togas or other period garb, Fitzgerald said gratefully.

"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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