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MU law students put Frankenstein on trial

Thursday, February 10, 2011 | 11:27 p.m. CST; updated 9:16 a.m. CST, Friday, February 11, 2011
The Historical and Theatrical Trial Society staged "Creating Life and Death: The Trial of Dr. Frankenstein" in Jesse Hall on Thursday night. The plaintiff's attorneys played by Bradford Lear, left, and Whitney Miller listen to Josephine Larison, who plays a representative from the Society Against Revenant Technology Experts in the performance. Revenant means an animated corpse.

COLUMBIA – One hundred ninety-three years after the crime, Missouri lawyers and law students tried Dr. “Victoria” Frankenstein for negligence for her behavior in creating the creature responsible for the death of Henry “Igor” Clerval.

The trial was put on by the Historical and Theatrical Trial Society  to provoke thinking in the community, inspire law students and give people a chance to watch and participate in a trial that never, but arguably should have, happened. 

The trial proceeded unscripted, from the judge – played by actual Missouri Western District Court of Appeals Judge Mark D. Pfeiffer – telling the first witness to take a bath, to another witness flirting with a lawyer and to the live winged creature that unexpectedly flew over the stage just before the closing arguments.

The participants took the trial seriously, stretching it to three hours and 20 minutes. The jury deliberated for 35 minutes before the judge stepped in and moved them along.

Still, the jury was hung.

They agreed about the negligence by Frankenstein and on the humanity of her creation, but they could not decide whether to strip the doctor of her medical license.

The trial struck a deep chord with some. Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" may have been written in 1818, but students were still able to use the story to discuss modern themes.

"The one thought that touched me is that the research we did here is kind of similar to stem cell research," said Ty Harden, a third-year law student and attorney for the defense. 

Frank Bowman, faculty adviser for the project, said, "The theme here and the reason that people found it attractive was that it allows you to talk about the advances of science and the creation of life ... the responsibility that we have."

Still, many found an outlet for humor in the trial as well. When the plaintiff's lawyer, who wore her bangs in a six-inch poof, requested the creature — or "this hideous beast-man" — be secured to his chair, the judge denied the request. He added to the creature, "If you make a move toward me, I've got a gun."

Played by third-year law student Whitney Miller, the lawyer also made two excuses in her arguments to let people know that she is looking for a job.

At one point, she "accidentally" projected her resume onto the screen that was used to show evidence documents for the trial. 

The society is now in its fifth year of performing mock trials and pulls from members of the community, the MU Law School and courts to fill roles.


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