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Around the Columns

Frankenstein goes to court


With legal finesse and theatrical flair, MU law students participated in a mock trial based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Photo by Rachel Coward

As a third-year law student, Whitney Miller of Richmond, Mo., had little experience with civil trials, yet she was assigned a complex case that had been on the literary docket since the 1800s.

Using storylines from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Miller represented Rolf, the brother of Henry “Igor” Clerval, a victim of Dr. “Victoria” Frankenstein’s green-skinned creature. Dressed in period clothing and with her bangs teased into a high poof, Miller argued that despite ample warning, Dr. Frankenstein created a “new form of machinery, not humanity” and was negligent in Igor’s death.

Miller’s performance, in a makeshift courtroom on Jesse Hall’s stage Feb. 10, was part of “Creating Life and Death: The Trial of Dr. Frankenstein,” the fifth show of its kind by MU’s Historical and Theatrical Trial Society. Since 2007, law students have jumped into history or literature, pulled out complex characters and put them on trial.

“Our goal is to create an entertaining show but one with law theory and practice,” says Chirag Shah, trial director and third-year law student from Milwaukee. “This year’s case was an allegory on the impacts of cloning and other scientific issues.”

Miller sought to have the creature destroyed and to bar the scientist from further research. The jury, made up of community members and led by state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, BA ’90, decided for the plaintiff but awarded no damages. The jurors disagreed about whether the creature (played by Joshua Jones, JD ’09, of St. Louis) was technically human and saw some value in the tissue regeneration research of Dr. Frankenstein (played by second-year law student Amy Williams, BS ’08, of Independence, Mo.).

The serious undertones didn’t take away from the laughter generated by the cast’s improvised jokes and outlandish accents. For months, students and alumni participating as witnesses and attorneys had honed their humor and legalese.

Miller consulted weekly with her co-counsel Bradford Lear, BA ’98, of Columbia. After drafting an opening argument, she found a dark corner on the third floor of the law library and rehearsed several times, making eye contact with the faces she had drawn on a marker board. Come show time, she was ready to face the Jesse Hall audience and the judge: Mark Pfeiffer, JD ’91, Missouri Court of Appeals judge for the Western District.

“The experience helped me learn a tiny bit of what goes into a civil case,” Miller says. “It took tons of time to prepare — and it was not even a real trial.”