It’s a courtroom scene that even writers for Law & Order haven’t dreamed up: A housewife, on trial for murdering her husband, personally cross-examining the prosecution’s star witness — her own teenage son. But such a cable-ready court drama begins later this month in Contra Costa Superior Court when 47-year-old Susan Polk, who will be serving as her own attorney, goes on trial for allegedly stabbing to death seventy-year-old psychologist Felix Polk three years ago in the guest cottage of their $2 million Orinda estate. The other tabloid twist: Polk met his future bride when she began to see him as a patient at age fifteen; she says the therapy couch turned into the proverbial casting couch. Therapist and patient eventually married and had three sons together.
Susan Polk insists she acted in self-defense, although that isn’t what prosecutors and her son Gabriel believe. Police arrested Polk on October 14, 2002 after receiving a 911 call from Gabriel, then fifteen, who found his father’s dead body riddled with 27 stab wounds. At the time, the two had been going through a nasty divorce and Susan Polk was planning on movin’ to Montana soon. According to earlier news accounts, Gabriel told police that his mother talked of killing his father before Felix’ death.
In a jailhouse interview with Feeder over the phone, Susan Polk suggested that Gabriel was merely repeating lies that his father had told him. She said that her son has made contradictory statements during the course of the case. “I certainly didn’t threaten his father or fantasize about killing him,” she says. When asked how she planned to cross-examine her youngest boy on the witness stand, Polk became audibly choked up and said she loved her son. “This is my first opportunity to talk to Gabriel since it happened,” she said. “I don’t view it as a cross-examination.”
While Polk hasn’t actually spoken with Gabriel, a judge revoked her bail in April for violating a court order by contacting her son by e-mail. In the missive that caught the attention of police, Polk reportedly wrote Gabriel that she had a dream about him in which he was pushed off a balcony and fell into a pool. Gabriel, who now lives with a family in Lafayette, told police he wasn’t sure if his mother was making a veiled threat, but the court decided to take no chances and threw her back in jail. Gabriel, now eighteen, described his mother to police as “delusional.” The bail-revocation led Polk to fire her third attorney in the case, Peter Coleridge, because he refused to let her testify and he twice referred to Gabriel as “the victim.” “I feel that to this point no one has said on my behalf what needs to be said,” she said, explaining why she chose to represent herself at the trial. A judge initially questioned whether Polk was mentally competent, but ultimately Polk, who has no legal background, got her wish to act as her own lawyer.
In her interview with Feeder, Polk said her late husband seduced her by hypnotizing and drugging her when she was his patient. Throughout their twenty-year marriage, she says he abused her mentally and physically, and eventually she wanted out. (She says he even abused their dog, making it sick by giving it Ex-Lax.) She says Felix couldn’t tolerate the idea of her leaving him. The night of his death, she says he snapped and attacked her with a knife when he realized that their marriage really was over. Obviously, in the end, she got the upper hand. Polk says she was merely defending herself.
While her son Gabriel will testify against her at the murder trial, her twenty-year-old son, Eli, has no doubt that his mom acted in self-defense. He says his father not only beat his mother, but hit him and his brothers too. “He knocked me to the ground a few times with a closed fist,” he recalls. Even though his father was seventy at the time of his death, Eli says the old man ran every day and still made for an imposing figure. “He would tell me, ‘Over my dead body will your mother leave me.'”
Barry Morris, a former neighbor of the Polks who has known the family more than a decade, scoffs at the notion that Susan killed Felix in self-defense. Morris, who will be a witness for the prosecution at Polk’s trial, says that Susan’s story has changed over time. He points out that she didn’t call police the night of the crime and said nothing about acting in self-defense when the cops took her away. In fact, Morris says, she claimed not to know anything about what had happened to her husband. Morris says that about a week before the alleged murder, Felix confided that Susan had called him from Montana to say she was buying a gun and was going to kill him. About a year before that, Morris says Orinda police arrested her for assaulting Felix, but he refused to press charges. “He was loath to have any confrontation with her,” Morris says, adding, “There was never a hint in anything he said that he would resort to any kind of physical violence. If anything, he was too gentle and wouldn’t stand up for his own rights.” Morris, himself a veteran criminal defense attorney, says that the prospect of Polk cross-examining her own son is bizarre and like nothing he’s ever seen in his thirty years of courtroom experience.
Murder defendants acting as their own lawyers may make for interesting theater — think of Long Island Railroad gunman Colin Ferguson cross-examining his surviving victims — but legal experts say defendants acting in “pro per” rarely do well. Karen Fleming-Ginn, a Walnut Creek-based jury consultant, says that not only do such people lack legal expertise, jurors tend to find them to be kooky. There’s another problem too, Fleming-Ginn says, especially in a case like Polk’s. “The only way to have a prominent defense is to really bring down the victim,” she reasons. “But I don’t see how the person accused of the crime can do that with any credibility at all.”
Susan Polk realizes that the public tends to look down on people who act as their own attorneys. It’s one of the obstacles she says she’ll have to overcome. “I am telling the truth and I hope that will come through” to the jury, she said.