Three 'witches' convicted in unusual Berkeley trial

In unorthodox proceedings before a federal judge, the defendants were found guilty of improper use of body parts.

Three 'witches' convicted in unusual Berkeley trial
Three “witches” (far left) sit next to their attorney as they face trial in Berkeley on Sunday, April 30, 2023. Berkeley Law

By Charles Burress

A strange mix of crime and courtroom drama was brewed in a Berkeley trial Sunday when three women long known as witches were convicted of violating state law banning the improper use of dead bodies.

At the same time, they were found not guilty of providing adulterated or unwholesome food, drink, drug or medicine. The jury rendered the verdicts as soon as the case was submitted.

The proceedings represented a spirited, time-traveling variation in the familiar world of public safety covered by The Berkeley Scanner. It was a colorful show-trial featuring fanciful legal acrobatics by some of the most distinguished legal names in California.

Held at the Freight & Salvage, the show was billed as a trial of the three infamous "witches" from Shakespeare's "Macbeth"the ones who chanted, "Double, double toil and trouble" as they stirred vile ingredients in their boiling cauldron.

UC Irvine’s New Swan Theater Festival actors appearing as the three witches or “weird sisters” from "Macbeth" prepare a vile potion in their cauldron. From left to right, Meg Evans, Abel Garcia and Hope Andrejack. Berkeley Law

The brew even had a whiff of Cal-Stanford rivalry, with the prosecution represented by Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and the witches defended by Stanford Law Associate Dean Bernadette Meyler.

Presiding was retired U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Guilford, a 14-year veteran of the federal bench and former president of the State Bar of California.

A striking fact brought out in the event, probably not well known among those without a detailed knowledge of "Macbeth," was that while the three women are identified by Shakespeare in the cast names and stage directions as "witches," they are called the "weird sisters" by other characters in the play's main text.

Chemerinsky pressed the prosecution’s case by listing the gruesome ingredients the "weird sisters" put in their "evil potion," including:

  • "liver of a blaspheming Jew"
  • "nose of Turk"
  • "finger of birth-strangled babe"

Including such objects in the brew was an illegal use of body parts under California Health and Safety Code section 7208, and also violated California Penal Code section 383, which forbids providing food, drink, drug or medicine that is adulterated or unwholesome, Chemerinsky said.

The defendants' evil design was to produce the "hallucinogenic effect" that caused Macbeth to see the ghosts and other visions that induced him and Lady Macbeth to commit the play’s heinous murders, Chemerinsky charged.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury," Chemenrinsky said in his concluding arguments to the audience of about 200 people, who also served as the jury, "many people died as a result of the weird sisters' actions and evil potion."

The defendants' alleged crimes were vividly illustrated by interspersing the court proceedings with two key scenes from the play featuring the weird sisters, as well as the famous scene of Macbeth seeing the image of a dagger before he kills King Duncan.

The scenes were performed by actors from the New Swan Shakespeare Festival at UC Irvine.

New Swan Theater Festival actor Evan Lugo as Macbeth seeing the image of a dagger. Berkeley Law

Arguing for the defense, Meyler readily acknowledged that the women weren’t trying to create a health food: "They knew very well that it was unwholesome and hence not fit to be eaten or drunk."

But, she said, the potion was not intended to be consumed and thus was not a food, drink, medicine or drug regulated by California law.

"My clients made their potion as part of their religious practice, intended to produce certain results in the world through what others might consider magical causation," Meyler said.

Chemerinsky countered that Macbeth did consume the brew by breathing in its hallucinogenic "fumes."

But Meyler asked how the sisters could have been targeting Macbeth when they were just minding their own business at the time he happened by?

"They were innocuously practicing their long-standing religious rituals in open spaces on a heath and in a witches’ haunt when Mr. Macbeth came along," she said.

As for violating the law against improper use of dead bodies, Meyler referred to the limited scope of the law, which applies only to "unclaimed" bodies, and said, "There’s no evidence that they have come by these remains improperly."

She said the state allows non-traditional methods of disposal, noting, "Gov. Newsom recently signed a measure into law that will allow for the composting of human remains and their use in soil for growing food."

Further, Meyler said, the three sisters are shielded by the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.

But prosecutor Chemerinsky asked the jury, "Is there any evidence in the record before you that the weird sisters saw themselves as practicing a religion?" He added, "It’s not a religion. Even if it were, there’s no violation of free exercise."

Defense counsel Meyler said the prosecution’s case reflected society’s failure to offer "recognition of religions that are not going to be part of the standard canon of religions."

She accused the state of "conducting a literal witch hunt against these sincere religious practitioners."

Several moments in the proceedings elicited audience laughter, as when Chemerinsky said that, when witches went to school, "all they learned about is how to spell."

But the biggest laugh came near the conclusion when Judge Guilford gave instructions to the jury and mistakenly referred to the defendants as the "guilty sisters." Meyler immediately called for a mistrial.

"A mistrial has been requested," Guilford said, and then added with a tap of his gavel, "It is denied."

He then asked the audience to raise their hands in voting guilty or not guilty on each of the two charges and to keep them up long enough for the crew of "bailiffs" to count.

The three defendants stood holding hands as the verdicts were announced: not guilty of providing an adulterated food, drink, drug or medicine, and guilty of improper disposal of human remains.

No mention was made of a statute of limitations for an alleged crime from four centuries ago, much less of a fictitious one. Perchance a partial rationale can be found in Shakespeare’s dismissal of the boundary between life and the stage: "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

The UC Shakespeare Trial was co-produced by the New Swan Shakespeare Center at UC Irvine, Berkeley Law, Stanford Law and UC Irvine Law. A recording of the event can be seen on YouTube.

Sunday’s trial was the fifth annual UC Shakespeare Trial. In the dock last year was Friar Laurence from "Romeo and Juliet." Standing accused in the three previous trials were Brutus from "Julius Caesar," Shylock from "Merchant of Venice" and Hamlet from "Hamlet."

Charles Burress is a freelance writer and former news reporter who covered Berkeley for the San Francisco Chronicle. He served also as the public information officer for the Berkeley Unified School District and as communications aide for former Mayor Tom Bates. His fledgling career on the stage ended after he was cast as the corpse in a production at the now-defunct Berkeley Stage Company.