It began the usual way - "Members of the jury…" -- but ended with a paraphrase of the writings of a brilliant Russian author - "Society will be judged by how we treat our criminals. How will you treat Rodya Raskolnikov?"
In between was Professor Michael Berch's mesmerizing defense summation based on the trial of Raskolnikov, the tormented murderer in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Berch delivered an impassioned, one-hour performance to a packed room of 125 people at the 12th Annual Last Lecture Series Tuesday night at Arizona State University.
He was one of three faculty members chosen by ASU's Faculty Recognition Committee and Memorial Union Programs and Activities for the series, and the first ever from the College of Law.
"A Defense Plea for Leniency at the Mitigation Hearing - State v. Raskolnikov" was classic Berch: he paced the stage, gesturing furiously, crouching or kneeling at times, raising his trademark gravelly voice or lowering it to a hush to make a point, his piercing blue eyes holding the gaze of "jurors" in the audience.
Before placing Raskolnikov's "fate" in their hands, Berch discussed Dostoevsky's classic novel and the author himself, "a total genius who 150 years ago saw things that we don't see today" in the areas of psychology, self-control, sin and redemption.
He chose Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky's first long novel, published in 1866, because "what's more dramatic than life and death? Nothing."
Berch drummed up empathy for Raskolnikov, for whom the death penalty was sought, and planted reasonable doubt in "jurors" minds that he deserved death, rather than life in prison.
But in addition to theatrical flair, Berch also demonstrated his teaching prowess, advising the audience of the similarities between courtrooms and classrooms.
"If you give students the opportunity to talk, and you are listening, all kinds of things come out that you could never have dreamed about," he said. "I've learned all sorts of important things in class."
The Last Lecture Series, which solicits proposals representing the final lectures for which presenters would want to be known, gave a $500 honorarium to each speaker. Following a standing ovation from family, friends, current and former students, faculty and staff, Berch announced his will be donated to the scholarship fund at the College of Law.