Killer Dane Was Sane, Mock Jurists Decide

March 19, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

WASHINGTON -- Was Hamlet a crafty schemer who faked madness to save his own Danish skin, or was he just a sick prince in need of psychiatric help?

That, as the troubled youth might say, is the question.

And this week, the U.S. Supreme Court provided an answer. With Justice Anthony Kennedy presiding, a jury was asked to decide whether William Shakespeare's tragic hero was mentally fit to stand trial for the murder of Polonius, a court adviser.

Members of the Shakespeare Theatre's Lawyers Committee's heard Hamlet's case at their annual dinner in Washington Thursday night, mulling over the use of the insanity defense in between bites of dilled shrimp and Gravalax mousse balls.

It's obvious that Hamlet killed Polonius, but his state of mind at the time is far more murky. So Justice Kennedy, a longtime Shakespeare lover, organized the trial. A slew of former White House counsels scurried for evidence in the "record" left by the Bard and called as witnesses dueling psychiatric experts from Harvard University.

"We know Hamlet in a way we don't know some people that are real," said Justice Kennedy, who donned his black robe for the trial. "If we admire Hamlet, we do so because he's like ourselves and we must accept responsibility for our actions."

That reasoning was echoed during the trial, when "Royal Court" prosecutors urged the jury to hold Hamlet accountable for his actions. If Denmark smelled bad before, they warned, it will reek if the prince is allowed to plead the insanity defense.

"I cannot overstate the importance of this case," said Washington lawyer Theodore Olson.

"Hamlet now seeks to assume the throne of Denmark. You cannot find that he was insane. According to Hamlet, he, like Polonius, is a victim. He may carry that stigma onto the throne."

But Hamlet's defenders implored the jury to just look at the PTC facts: The prince fits the description of a classic manic-depressive. And, they added, there is no earthly reason why the prince should feign madness.

"Hamlet is a person of royal background, with the best education money could buy, with all the social tools necessary to deal with grief, frustration and pain," said television legal commentator Abbe Lowell.

"Unless, of course, that person is abnormal. And unfortunately, that's the case with poor Prince Hamlet."

In his defense, Mr. Lowell even wove in timely anecdotes including the notorious trials of Lorena Bobbitt and the Menendez brothers.

"We have often seen in our society what looks like a ruthless crime -- brothers killing their parents, a woman wounding her spouse," he said. "But it is not a crime at all. It is the result of their mental conditions."

That line got a lot of laughs, but, alas, failed to win Hamlet the case. Although the vote was not unanimous, most of the jurors believed Hamlet was mentally fit to stand trial.

As for Hamlet, the royal Dane took the news in stride.

Local actor Stevie Ray Dallimore -- clad in black pantaloons and a flouncy shirt -- was clearly thrilled to be there.

"This is a blast, hanging out at the high court," he said.

Since he was not allowed any lines, except to identify himself dur

ing the trial, Mr. Dallimore spent most of the evening schmoozing with guests in the high court's corridors.

The defeat also was accepted gracefully by Hamlet's high-powered defense, although some good-natured grumblings were heard.

Myer Feldman, former White House counsel to President John F. Kennedy, jokingly questioned the jury screening.

"We should've had more Democrats on the panel," he said.

Juror Ed Miller wolfed down a cream puff after the verdict and shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe some people didn't think he was guilty," he said.

The star juror, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, apparently added her own feminist twist to the verdict, suggesting that Hamlet also stand trial for the destruction of Ophelia, who drowns herself in the wake of a tormented love affair with the prince.

"His insensitivity to this person was beyond justification," Justice Ginsburg said.

Mr. Feldman has another proposal. "Next time," he said, "I want to put Shakespeare on trial for plagiarism."

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