Murder Trial Reenactment Brings Old Court Case to Life
A man is accused of shooting his pregnant lover, but was it murder or suicide? That’s what spectators were asked to determine as they watched an 1896 trial unfold at the Old Court House in downtown Dayton.
It’s part of a three-week production put on by Dayton History with local actors helping fill the roles of prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, and a judge.
“The program really began because Dayton History wanted to find some innovative ways to interpret this building – the Old Court House,” Margaret Piatt, the play’s director and writer said.
Piatt started Old Case Files six years ago, and once a year a case comes to life as actors reenact old murder trials that took place in Dayton. Audience members are called spectators as they draw their own conclusions about whether the defendant is innocent or guilty.
“We also knew early on that we were going to draw the jury from the spectators and give them the power to make the decision, so it would always be a surprise to us as to what choice they made, and I can’t tell you what an important and exciting aspect that has become,” Piatt said.
Scott Stoney is a professional actor with the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton. He has participated in all six Old Case Files reenactments and said it’s something he looks forward to every year.
“I just keep wondering what will the next case be and what period of history because we’ve really been delving a lot in the turn of the century, and I would love to go either farther in the past or a little bit ahead, like maybe the 20s or the 30s where the costuming is going to be significantly different but so will the judicial system because it’s always growing and changing,” Stoney said.
Trying to pare down hundreds of documents and comb through 100 witness testimonies for this 1896 case, Piatt and Stoney said condensing the murder trial into an hour and a half play can be challenging but fun. They hope the spectators gain a better understanding of the judicial system of that time period.
“Hopefully they will get an appreciation for what the judicial system was like in 1896, but I’m more concerned with what is their reaction here. Are they listening to the testimony, are they willing to suspend 2016 for the duration to forget that back in 1896 there were no forensics, so don’t let that get in the way of arriving at a verdict,” Stoney said.
Piatt said there’s no better way of learning more about their community’s history than watching a murder case unfold in Dayton’s Old Court House.