Jury Tackles 400-Year-Old Murder, Pronounces Prince Hamlet ‘Criminally Responsible’ in Death of Polonius
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
“To be sane, or not to be sane, that is the question,” defense lawyer Blair Berk told the jury, in the most unusual—or at least the longest delayed—case of her career.
“It has taken over 400 years for our client to get his day in court,” she explained.
Her client, Prince Hamlet, had asserted the defense of insanity, or lack of criminal responsibility, in the death of Polonius, counselor to the King. And the jury that would decide that issue had been charged on its duties by the trial judge, Anthony M. Kennedy, on a short recess from his day job as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
While every reader of Shakespeare knows that Hamlet did the deed, there has been much doubt as to whether he knew that what he did was wrong, or whether he was driven to madness after his uncle killed his father and married his mother while he was away at college.
That was the question before a jury of Hamlet’s peers—or something like that—Monday night at USC’s Bovard Theater. And by a vote of 10-2—the compressed time frame did not allow for the usual unanimous verdict, Kennedy explained—they said he was “criminally responsible” at the time of the killing.
The occasion was “The Trial of Hamlet,” a production of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. The center seeks to popularize the Bard’s works by presenting them in various settings around the county, artistic director Ben Donenberg, who brought Monday’s production together, explained in introductory remarks. The case for insanity was presented by Berk, along with veteran defense lawyer Richard Hirsch. Opposing them on the prosecution side were Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers, who recently announced she was running for district attorney next year, and Nathan Hochman, a former U.S. assistant attorney general.
Their expert witnesses were forensic psychiatrists who have testified in hundreds of cases, Dr. Saul Faerstein for the defense and Dr. Ronald Markman—who reluctantly acknowledged that he is also an attorney—for the prosecution.
Hamlet was portrayed by actor Graham Hamilton, who has performed the role on the professional stage. But in this production, he was reduced to a non-speaking role by the defense decision not to put him on the stand.
The jury included actors Tom Irwin—who was named foreman—and Helen Hunt, and several local citizens drawn from various walks of life. The youngest juror, high school student Darcy Padilla-Friedenthal, studiously took notes during the testimony, as her parents—Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioners Alan Friedenthal and Steff Padilla—beamed from the audience.
Faerstein, referring to the DSM-IV, or “Danish Statistical Manual,” as Berk called it, said Hamlet had a “major depressive disorder.” Faerstein said Hamlet was “totally crazed and unhinged,” citing soliloquies in which “he’s talking to himself with no one else there.”
Put more simply, Hirsch told the jury, “[h]e was truly a melancholy Dane.”
Not so, Meyers told the panel.
Hamlet was angry, and he wanted revenge, the prosecutor said.
“This is not insanity,” she thundered. “This is what most killers of today call payback.”
Talking to Ghost
The lawyers and their experts, as well as the jury—part of the deliberations were seen by the audience via closed-circuit television—spent much of their time debating the significance of Hamlet’s conversation with his father’s ghost.
To Faerstein, this was am “auditory hallucination,” sure sign of insanity. The prosecution challenged him, saying that if Shakespeare had it right, all sorts of Danes were seeing and/or talking to ghosts in that era.
“It’s one thing to see ghosts,” Faerstein demurred. “It’s quite another to take commands from them.”
Markman disagreed, saying that Hamlet knew right from wrong and exhibited only two or three symptoms of a major depressive disorder. To be diagnosed as having such a condition, he would have to have exhibited at least five of nine possible symptoms, the expert explained.
Markman acknowledged, however, that he had been paid for his testimony. “I got free parking and a very tasty sandwich,” he deadpanned.
Kennedy, talking to reporters after the performance, explained that he took on the role, which he has previously performed in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere., because he is interested in Shakespeare and wanted to bring his works to new audiences, particularly of young people.
“It’s part of our responsibility...to preserve our heritage and preserve our philosophy,” he said.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company