By now most local readers should be at least passingly familiar with the family catastrophe of Orinda homemaker Susan Polk and her late husband, Felix, considering the play it's received in the dailies including The New York Times, national cable talk shows such as Nancy Grace, and NBC's Dateline, not to mention this newspaper.
At its tabloid-tragic core, it goes like this: Susan Bolling, a troubled girl, is sent to see psychologist Felix Polk at age fifteen. A year later they're having sex even though he's, well, her shrink, 25 years older, and married with two kids. Felix later divorces his wife, marries his former teen patient, and goes on to have three sons with her. The marriage sours, and twenty years later, when she files for divorce, things turn truly nasty. The sordid love affair comes to a bloody end when, on the night of October 13, 2002, Susan stabs Felix to death in the pool house of their $2 million estate.
The crucial question for the jury is this: Was it self-defense or cold-blooded murder?
The Polk children have different answers to that question. The eldest, Adam, and youngest, Gabriel, side with the prosecution. Gabe, who was fifteen when he found his father's body, will be the district attorney's star witness. Middle son Eli Polk, who is now twenty, believes his mother killed in self-defense. He will testify that his father abused his mother physically and psychologically. "This is potentially one of the great legal stories," TV legal pundit and local criminal defense attorney Dan Horowitz said of the case in August. "It's like a Greek drama."
At that time, Horowitz was merely a high-profile spectator. He had no inkling the case would ultimately draw attention to his own family tragedy. But shortly thereafter, Susan Polk hired Horowitz to defend her. Then, in a freak coincidence the weekend after the lawyer delivered his opening trial statements on Susan's behalf, he found his wife, Pamela Vitale, murdered in a trailer the couple had been sharing while they built their dream home. This killing, which promptly led to the arrest of a troubled sixteen-year-old, created an even greater media sensation, and Judge Laurel Brady declared a mistrial in the Polk case.
Brady is supposed to schedule a new trial date this week. Whether Horowitz will still be Susan Polk's lawyer is unclear, but his assistant says he is expected to stay on. The defense theory will probably be the same no matter who represents Susan: that Felix Polk, mentally ill and full of rage, took advantage of a vulnerable girl and then flipped out decades later and tried to kill her when he realized she was leaving him for good. The prosecution's case will also remain the same: that Susan, furious over having her alimony slashed and losing custody of her youngest son, killed her husband in cold blood -- as she had threatened to do for months.
To reach a verdict, jurors essentially will have to decide who was crazier and who was more afraid of whom. They will be asked by both sides to challenge their assumptions. And so, dear reader, we invite you to challenge your own. If, based on what you've absorbed from the public zeitgeist, you are inclined to believe that Susan Polk acted in self-defense, click here. If, however, you view her as a cold-blooded killer, click here.
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