Published February 01, 2011
LOS ANGELES – A notorious criminal case that waited 400 years to go before a jury resulted in no definite answer to the question of whether the defendant — Hamlet Prince of Denmark — was sane when he committed murder.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy presided over a mock trial Monday night at the University of Southern California, an event sponsored by the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. The hung jury, which included actors Helen Hunt and Tom Irwin, deliberated with the audience eavesdropping by video feed.
Of the 12 jurors, two found the prince insane, while 10 found him to be sane at the time when he stabbed Polonius, the adviser to the king in the classic Shakespeare play.
Noted Los Angeles attorneys filled in as prosecutors and defense lawyers before an audience of other lawyers, students and onetime Hamlet actor Mel Gibson.
"It has taken well over 400 years for our client to get his day in court," said Blair Berk, who represented Hamlet. "To be sane, or not to be sane, at the time he killed Polonius. That is the question."
Berk and the other defense attorney, Richard Hirsch, played on Shakespeare's words in arguing that Hamlet had a classic personality disorder.
"He was truly a melancholy Dane," said Hirsch, noting that Hamlet's own mother proclaimed him to be mad.
But the prosecutors, Deputy District Attorney Danette Meyers and attorney Nathan J. Hochman, argued that Hamlet was sane — though obsessed with avenging the death of his father, the king.
Meyers told the jury that Hamlet's murderous behavior was not a result of insanity. "This is anger, and what today would be called payback," she said.
She also said that his vision of his father as a ghost giving him orders was not evidence of his mental state. "Seeing ghosts was not uncommon in the state of Denmark," she added.
Both sides called to the witness stand famed forensic psychiatrists who have testified in high profile cases including those of O.J. Simpson, Charles Manson and the Unabomber.
Dr. Saul Faerstein said Hamlet was "totally crazed and unhinged," citing soliloquies in which "he's talking to himself with no one else there."
He said Hamlet "was experiencing was an auditory hallucination" when he saw his father's ghost. "That was a sign of a significant psychological disorder," Faerstein said.
Dr. Ronald Markman disagreed, saying that Hamlet knew right from wrong and did not meet the current accepted criteria for having a major depressive disorder. "My opinion is, he was sane-based on his behavior before, after and during the act."
On cross-examination, Hirsch asked the medical expert how much he was paid for his testimony.
"I got free parking and a very tasty sandwich," Markman deadpanned.
After the hung jury could not reach a decision, Kennedy sentenced Hamlet to "the pages of our literary heritage to challenge us and later generations to know more about you." An actor in a non-speaking role stood in for the literary prince during the trial.
The point of the exercise in law and literature was to educate, Kennedy said after the trial. He noted that 300 high school students attended the performance.
Gibson, who has been represented in his own legal troubles by Berk, said after the verdict that he didn't believe that Hamlet was "criminally responsible" for his actions.
Kennedy, who has presided over similar mock trials in Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C., said Hamlet usually loses his case but "this one would have been a hung jury."