High schoolers perform mock trial
It looked like a normal day in the courtroom.
Twelve jurors sat in the jury box and weighed the evidence presented to them. A court reporter typed the tense exchanges between attorneys and witnesses, while Judge Myron Gookin ruled on objections from the opposing counsel. The only thing unusual about this day in the court was the youthful faces of everyone involved. Appearances to the contrary, the activities inside the courtroom were not those of a real trial but rather a “mock trial” conducted by Fairfield High School students.
On April 18, FHS social studies teacher Andrew Hopper took his class to court, in a manner of speaking. This was not the first time Hopper has led his students through a mock trial, but it is the first time they have performed the trial in an actual courtroom, and they did so before a real presiding judge, Gookin, and courtroom reporter, Joni Knapp. Gookin and Knapp volunteered their time for the advancement of legal education.
The purpose of the mock trial was to teach the students the inner workings of America’s legal system. Everyone in the class had a role to play. Their roles included prosecution and defense attorneys, witnesses and jurors. They found out their roles two weeks before the trial. The witnesses spent that time reading their affidavit, which is a sworn statement a witness makes prior to court describing what happened in a case.
The attorneys had to learn the rules of evidence, such as what questions they were allowed to ask and which they were not. They also had to be prepared to object when they felt the opposing counsel had violated the rules of evidence. They argued their objection for the judge, who either sustained the objection to prevent the question from being answered or overruled it to allow the testimony.
This particular case was fictitious and taken from a mock trial case used by other schools in competition. It was about a security guard who was charged with attempted murder for shooting a high school student who he thought was armed and acting suspicious. The shooting victim, who went by the character name “Alex Day,” was suspected of being in a street gang. The prosecution argued the security guard, Sydney Taylor, shot Alex because he didn’t like him, whereas the defense argued Sydney shot in self-defense.
Alex Christensen played the part of Alex Day. Christensen spent three days going over his character’s profile to help craft the questions the prosecutors would ask him and how he would answer them.
Jolea Burkhart played the role of the high school principal who testified for the defense. Burkhart said she read her prepared statement “over and over again” to get inside the mind of her character.
“It was kind of like ‘Law & Order’ the television show, but without all the drama,” she said.
Hailey Coop played a defense attorney who cross-examined two prosecution witnesses. She highlighted key information in the witnesses’ affidavits that she could use to further her case or that the opposition could use against her.
“It changed my thoughts about how difficult it is to win the case,” she said. “It taught me that even when you think you are prepared, to expect the unexpected and prepare more. It showed me that I definitely don’t want to be a lawyer. It is the most nerve-wracking experience ever!”
Prosecuting attorney Keith Burns said, far from rattling his nerves, the experience in the courtroom invigorated him.
“I think a career as a prosecutor would be exciting and something I could see myself doing,” he said. “I spent a considerable amount of time reading through different aspects of the case to pinpoint specific things to get a guilty verdict.”
Burns said he spent one to two hours every day studying the case.
Juror Ulen Chavez said that, after observing the trial, he thought a job as a lawyer might not be that bad.
Juror LaQuann Hill said, “I worked with my group to create a timeline of all the events. I got the chance to see how the jury worked. I may go into a career in the legal system and may not be mad now if I get jury duty.”
Harley Cook played an expert witness who specialized in gangs. She said she and her directing attorney did not rehearse their questions and answers beforehand, although she and the other witnesses were allowed to write information on notecards to refer to while on the stand.
Defense attorney Drew Grunwald said the trial showed him how quickly lawyers have to think on their feet, because they have to be able to object to a question that asks for hearsay or irrelevant information before the jury hears the witness’s answer.
“You have to listen to the question and think, ‘Can I object to this?’ and by that point it’s too late,” he said.
Prosecuting attorney Savannah Fear said she wrote the questions for her direct and cross-examinations. She said there was evidence in the witnesses’ statements she wanted to bring up in court but couldn’t because of the rules of evidence.
“We couldn’t bring up the witnesses’ criminal records,” she said.
After all the evidence was presented, the jury spent several minutes deliberating over the evidence. The verdict it reached was to declare the defendant not guilty of attempted murder but guilty of two lesser charges: aggravated assault and negligent use of a firearm.