The day of Dmitri's trial arrives, and the courtroom is filled with curious visitors from distant parts of the land; the trial has aroused much interest. Besides the gruesome details of parricide that will be discussed, Dmitri is being defended by the celebrated criminal lawyer Fetyukovitch, who has come from Moscow to undertake the defense. And, it is noted, the jury is made up mostly of peasants. Can such country people understand the subtleties of the much-discussed case?
Dmitri enters the courtroom exquisitely dressed in a new frock coat. The judge then reads the indictment against him and asks for his plea. Dmitri responds, "I plead guilty to drunkenness and dissipation . . . to idleness and debauchery . . . but I am not guilty of the death of that old man." Most of the people in the courtroom, however, even those who are partial to Dmitri, believe that the case against him is a strong one, for much of the evidence and nearly all of the witnesses' statements seem to indicate Dmitri's guilt.
Fetyukovitch is an exceptionally skilled trial lawyer. He has grasped all the various aspects of the case, and as Grigory, Rakitin, Captain Snegiryov, the innkeeper from Mokroe, and others are called to testify, he skillfully discredits the testimony of each of them, pointing out inconsistencies in their statements and creating doubts about the integrity of their motives.
Later, when three medical experts are called to testify about Dmitri's mental state, each doctor suggests a different cause for Dmitri's behavior. Thus, with the medical evidence so contradictory, there is no firm support for either the prosecution or the defense. There is a minor exception, however; the local doctor, Herzenstube, tells several interesting stories about Dmitri's childhood and creates some new sympathy among the listeners.
Alyosha proves to be an asset for his brother because he is well known for his integrity. During his testimony, he is able to recall an incident with Dmitri, one that happened just before the murder. It proves that Dmitri did have a large sum of money on him and that he did not murder Fyodor for the 3,000 rubles. This fact impresses most people and convinces them that Dmitri has not stolen old Karamazov's secret fund.
Following Alyosha in the witness stand is Katerina, who tells of Dmitri's saving her father from ruin and then refraining from blackmailing and thereby seducing her. Her story is heard with mixed interest, but Dmitri feels that she need not have told the tale because it is a severe blow to her integrity. Now it is publicly known how thoroughly she has humiliated herself for Dmitri. Grushenka is able to add little to Dmitri's defense except for her passionate outcries that he is innocent.
Ivan has not yet testified. His testimony has been postponed because of his illness, but suddenly he appears at the trial. At first he is unable to speak sense. He can give no evidence. Then, as he is about to leave, he turns and shows the court the 3,000 rubles that Smerdyakov gave him. He reveals that Smerdyakov is the murderer and that he allowed the servant to perform the act. He becomes so excited that he says that he has a witness for everything he has said — a devil who visits him at night. Hysterically, he asserts the truth of his testimony but is finally dragged from the courtroom, screaming incoherently.
The trial has one more surprise before it recesses. Katerina reverses her statements and shows the court the letter that Dmitri wrote, stating that he might be forced to kill his father. She defends Ivan because she knows that he is suffering from mental illness. Grushenka then accuses Katerina of being a serpent, and an uproar follows. When order is finally restored, the lawyers give their concluding speeches.
Once more, Kirillovitch, the prosecutor, describes the murder and analyzes the members of the Karamazov family, emphasizing Dmitri's passionate and undisciplined personality and reviewing in detail Dmitri's activities and statements during the days preceding the murder. He insists that Dmitri is exactly the sort of man whose violent disposition would drive him to seek a solution to all his problems through crime. Kirillovitch then dismisses Ivan's theory that Smerdyakov is the murderer by pointing out that the servant did not have any of the qualities of a murderer's personality; he had no motive and, further, was incapacitated on the night of the crime. Dmitri, on the other hand, did have a motive — his hatred for his father — and he had a great need for money. All this, plus the letter he wrote to Katerina, says the prosecutor, is conclusive proof that the crime was premeditated and was, in fact, committed by Dmitri Karamazov. He concludes by making a stirring appeal to the jury to uphold the sacred principles of justice and the moral foundation on which Russian civilization is built by punishing this most horrible of crimes — the murder of a father by his son.
Fetyukovitch begins his defense by emphasizing that all evidence against Dmitri is circumstantial. No fact withstands objective criticism if examined separately. He also points out that there is no real proof that a robbery took place; the belief that Fyodor kept 3,000 rubles, he says, is based on hearsay, and there is no reason to disbelieve Dmitri's explanation of where the money he spent at Mokroe came from. He also reminds the jury that the letter Dmitri wrote to Katerina was the result of extreme drunkenness and despair and cannot be equated with premeditated murder. Then, after reviewing all the evidence, he makes this final and important point: Fyodor's murder was not that of parricide. The man was never a father to Dmitri, nor was he a father to any of his sons. It is true that Fyodor's sensuousness resulted in Dmitri's birth, but Fyodor was a father in that respect only. After Dmitri was born, Fyodor continually mistreated the boy and from then on neglected all his parental duties. In fact, he abandoned the boy. All his life Dmitri endured mistreatment, and now, if he is convicted, the jury will destroy his only chance to reform and to make a decent life for himself. The lawyer asks for mercy so that Dmitri can be redeemed. He reminds the jury that the end of Russian justice is not to punish. Rather, it is pronounced so that a criminal can be helped toward salvation and regeneration.
The audience is overcome with sympathy and enthusiasm and breaks into applause. The jury retires. The general consensus is that Dmitri will surely be acquitted, but such is not the case. When the verdict is read, Dmitri is found guilty on every count.
Recorded in detail in this book is Dmitri's trial. Here is massive evidence of Dostoevsky's long interest in the proceedings of the Russian courts and of the psychology practiced by lawyers. Dmitri's attorney, Fetyukovitch, for example, is able to undermine and cleverly discredit the testimony of every witness. He is particularly masterful as he points out that Grigory, unused to drinking, had been imbibing on the night of the murder and could have seen "the gates of heaven open up." Likewise, with all witnesses, Fetyukovitch discovers and enlarges a loophole in their statements so that truth becomes extremely tenuous.
The trial, which up to a certain point has been shaped by the incisive intelligence of Dmitri's lawyer, takes on a new turn as Ivan comes forward to give his testimony. He desires to tell all he knows and to confess his own part in the murder, but he rages incoherently and finally suffers a nervous collapse. This, in turn, forces Katerina to admit evidence that ultimately convicts Dmitri. The confused young girl, in her attempt to save Ivan from disgrace, produces the letter written by Dmitri announcing his plan to murder his father, if necessary, to pay back the money he owes. More than any other factor, this letter condemns Dmitri.
The final section of Book XII covers the long speeches of the prosecutor and the defense attorney in which each summarizes the arguments of the trial and offers his interpretation. Actually, nothing new is revealed in these speeches. They serve chiefly to illustrate the nature of the legal minds emerging in Russia during this period.