Court scenes are usually filled with drama, tension, emotion, twists, and even violence. That’s why they often make for good television. And then, of course, there are those that are simply… odd. History is full of bizarre and unique court proceedings, so today we’re taking a look at ten of them.
10. The Impiety of Socrates
As a general rule, if you’re standing trial, it’s probably not a good idea to mock and taunt the jury that gets to decide your fate. Socrates, however, did not get the memo.
In 399 BC, the famed philosopher was charged with impiety against the gods and for corrupting the youth of Athens. As per Athenian law, Socrates was judged by a jury of 501 peers, all of them citizens in good standing. They found him guilty by a vote of 281 to 220.
Not ideal so far, but now came the crucial part – the sentencing. Again, according to Athenian customs, the defendant was free to suggest his own punishment and Socrates could have probably avoided a severe sentence if he would have shown a bit of contrition. Instead, he mocked the jury, saying that instead of giving him a fine, they should be thanking him.
Well, the good news is that they didn’t give him a fine. The bad news is that they sentenced him to death by a vote of 361 to 140, which means that Socrates got 80 people who didn’t even vote him guilty to want to see him dead.
9. The Limitations of Statues
We’re staying in Ancient Greece for this one, but moving on to a famed Olympian called Theagenes. The guy brought a lot of victories and prestige to his native island of Thasos, so when he died, they commemorated him with a bronze statue.
Not everyone was a fan, though, and one of his former opponents who never managed to defeat Theagenes regularly visited the statue, mocking it, hitting it, and denigrating it as if it was Theagenes himself. One night, the man got too animated with his actions and the statue got its revenge by toppling onto him and killing him.
One might call it karma, but the deceased man’s sons did not agree and, instead, they brought a charge of murder against the statue of Theagenes. And what’s more, the inanimate object was found guilty. It was sentenced to exile and, since Thasos is an island, this meant that they chucked it into the sea.
8. The Mice of Stelvio
While Ancient Greece didn’t find it weird to put inanimate objects on trial, medieval Europe was into trying animals for various offenses. Many of them had something to do with witchcraft, but not all of them, as was the case in 1519 when a group of field mice was put on trial in Stelvio, Italy, charged with damaging crops by burrowing.
To give the people of Stelvio credit, they did take this seriously and appointed a man named Hans Grinebner to defend the rascally rodents. His argument was that the field mice did more good than harm to the crops by eating the insects and enriching the soil. The judge wasn’t entirely convinced, but he was lenient with his sentencing. He gave the mice 14 days to depart, even promising them safe passage from dogs, cats, and other predators.
7. Bushell’s Case
From a forgiving judge, we move on to a not-so-forgiving judge, one who thought that he could bully, threaten, and coerce the jury to get his way and, instead, had a landmark decision made against him that is still crucial to English law.
The year was 1670 and it was supposed to be a straightforward case where two Quakers, William Mead and William Penn, stood accused of unlawful assembly since, according to the recently passed Conventicle Act, religious assemblies of five or more people were only allowed under the auspices of the Church of England.
William Penn gave an impassioned testimony, convincing the jury that they only gathered to worship and not to start any trouble. Therefore, the jury found the Quakers only guilty of speaking in Gracechurch Street which, even back then, was not unlawful.
The judge, however, would not have it. He threatened to lock up the jury without food, water, or tobacco until they returned a guilty verdict that the Court would accept. Instead, the jury delivered the Court a proper middle finger when, after two days of imprisonment, they came back with a verdict of “not guilty.” As you might expect, the judge was none too pleased about that, so he fined the jurors for contempt of court and imprisoned them until they paid their fines.
One of the jurors, Edward Bushell, refused to pay and instead took the case to the Court of Common Pleas, where Chief Justice Sir John Vaughan sided with him and established beyond question the independence of the jury in English law.
6. Beyond the Call of Duty
The story of Clement Vallandigham is one often told, but we simply cannot talk about strange trials without mentioning the lawyer who killed himself and proved his client innocent.
The year was 1871 and Clement Vallandigham was a former Ohio congressman-turned-lawyer who was defending a man named Thomas McGehan. His client stood accused of shooting and killing a man named Thomas Myers during a bar brawl, but Vallandigham wanted to show the jury that it was more likely that Myers accidentally shot himself while trying to draw his pistol from a kneeling position.
To accomplish this, Vallandigham wanted to stage a demonstration before the jury. The day before his appearance in court, he was at the Lebanon House Hotel in Ohio with his entourage and showed them what he intended to do. He had two guns: the actual murder weapon that shot Myers and his own pistol, which he used to conduct his own forensics à la CSI. One was loaded and the other one was not. You can probably guess where this is going.
Vallandigham picked up the loaded gun by mistake, put it in his pocket, and tried to draw it. Just like he thought it would happen, the pistol got stuck and discharged by accident. The lawyer died after 12 agonizing hours but, on the plus side, his client was acquitted.
5. Heretical Heliocentricity
When Copernicus presented his heliocentric model which stated that the Sun was at the center of the Universe, the Catholic Church wasn’t too thrilled with the idea, mainly because it contradicted biblical teachings which placed the Earth at the center. However, it didn’t act immediately. It wasn’t until a few decades later when the idea started getting popular with other astronomers, that the Inquisition decided to put its foot down and get out the comfy chair.
The most famous case is Galileo, who was found guilty of heresy and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. However, he got off easy compared to Giordano Bruno, who was actually burned at the stake for his beliefs.
After his teachings made him persona non grata in Italy, Bruno wandered through Europe during the late 16th century, seeking refuge in countries that were a bit more tolerant towards his radical ways. Then, for whatever reason, in 1591 he decided to return to Italy. He was betrayed by a Venetian noble named Giovanni Mocenigo who denounced him to the Inquisition and he was placed under arrest in 1592.
From Venice, Bruno was deported to Rome in 1593, where his trial lasted almost seven years, mainly because the inquisitors wanted to track down as many of his heretical writings as possible. During this time, Bruno refused to denounce his ideas and, when he was found guilty and sentenced to death, he replied: “You may be more afraid to bring that sentence against me than I am to accept it.”
4. Trial by Fire Put on Ice
According to 15th-century Italian preacher Girolamo Savonarola, everything that’s fun in life is a sin: sex, frivolity, poetry, jokes, gambling, nice clothes, and luxuries of any kind. He was so extreme that even the Catholic Church thought he should tone it down a bit, which isn’t that hard to imagine since, at the time, the Church was ruled by Pope Alexander VI from the Borgia family.
But even so, the Dominican friar refused to lighten up with the “fire and brimstone.” Eventually, a Franciscan rival told him to put up or shut up and challenged him to trial by fire. If he was speaking the truth, then surely God would be on his side.
The ordeal was supposed to take place on April 7, 1498, but it didn’t. Some reported that heavy rain poured from the heavens and extinguished the fire. Thus, a divine sign that Savonarola was in the wrong. Others said that the Franciscan friar simply didn’t show up. Either way, the public blamed Savonarola because they turned up expecting to see a miracle.
Once he had lost public opinion, the Church quickly imprisoned Savonarola and two of his closest followers. They were convicted of heresy, tortured, hanged, and then burned at the stake.
3. Who Killed You?
Murder trials would be a lot easier if you could simply ask the victim who killed them. That was the thinking that a group of jurors had in 1994 during the trial of Stephen Young for a gruesome double murder. However, the problem is that dead people are pretty hard to reach… unless, of course, you have a Ouija board.
One night, during the trial, four jurors decided to consult the spirits using an improvised Ouija board made using paper and a wine glass. Fortunately for them, the ghost of one of the victims was in a chatty mood that night, and he confirmed that Young had killed him and instructed them to vote guilty.
Which they did. Stephen Young was found guilty and only later did it emerge that some of the jurors had been swayed by testimony from the other side. Unsurprisingly, a retrial was ordered.
2. The Last Duel
If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, then you will already be familiar with this story of trial by combat between two French knights that took place on December 29, 1386.
A decade earlier, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris were close friends who fought side by side. However, the latter assaulted and raped the former’s wife, Marguerite. Le Gris expected her to keep quiet to avoid being dishonored, but Marguerite not only told her husband, but even took Le Gris to court. This was a lot riskier than you might imagine because if Marguerite was found guilty of false witness, she could have been burned at the stake.
Trials by combat had become a rarity in France by the end of the 14th century. However, King Charles VI not only authorized this one but presided over it. There are several firsthand accounts of the duel and, although they are not all the same, they agree that Le Gris landed the first hit on his opponent’s thigh. However, this seemed to fill Carrouges with bloodlust and he grabbed Le Gris’s helmet with one hand and threw him to the ground. He demanded him to admit the truth and, when Le Gris refused, Carrouges “drew his sword and killed his enemy with great difficulty, because he was encased in armor.”
1. The Cadaver Synod
As far as bizarre court scenes are concerned, it is unlikely that you will find any stranger than the so-called Cadaver Synod where a pope put his deceased predecessor on trial.
It was January 897 AD. The accuser was Pope Stephen VI, while the defendant was Pope Formosus who had died the previous year and had been buried for six months. For reasons that are too long and complicated to get into here, the two of them did not like each other. So when Stephen gained the upper hand on his rival (by still being alive) he saw it as the perfect opportunity for revenge.
Stephen had Formosus dug up and put on trial, accusing him of multiple crimes including illegally serving as a bishop and coveting the Papacy. You’ll be stunned to discover that Formosus was found guilty. There’s little you can do to punish a corpse, but Stephen still tried his hardest. He had all of Formosus’s consecrations and appointments voided. He stripped him of his fancy garments and dressed him in rags, and, lastly, cut off the three fingers that Formosus used to give blessings. After that he had the body thrown into the Tiber River.
Case closed, you might say, but Formosus still had the last laugh from beyond the grave. The people of Rome were so outraged by the Cadaver Synod that they rioted. Pope Stephen VI was imprisoned and strangled to death a few months later.