The most suspenseful element of a mock trial conducted by 5th graders is that no one knows the outcome – will the jury find the defendant guilty?
The prosecution and defense teams spent weeks carefully preparing their respective cases. They were trained in public speaking skills and techniques for persuasively presenting evidence, questioning witnesses and summing up. When the date of the trial finally arrived, they had the facts down, the questions prepared, the arguments honed. But as in a real trial, the result wasn’t determined until the jury voted.
This year, mock trials were staged by three schools – two by Rosa Parks 5th graders and one each by Thousand Oaks and Oxford. Students received a set of facts and were coached by teachers and volunteer parents and legal professionals. Though details varied by school, roles generally were divided up among attorneys, witnesses and members of the jury, with the trial including opening statements, testimony and questioning of witnesses, closing arguments and jury deliberations. Each trial lasted more than an hour. Participating students attended weekly preparation sessions outside of school hours throughout the semester.
The two Rosa Parks trials (on June 1 and 8) and the Thousand Oaks trial (on May 30) were held in the moot courtroom at the UC Berkeley law school, and real local judges presided. All three trials used the same case – a Berkeley High lacrosse player accused of stealing $250 from a team bake sale – but the verdicts varied. The defendant was found not guilty in the first Rosa Parks trial, while the other two trials ended in hung juries.
The Oxford trial took a different tack, with teacher Carla Inniss leading her 5th-grade class in a trial held in the classroom in February. In the dock was Christopher Columbus – accused of capital murder, first-degree murder, land theft and mayhem. As in the trials at the other schools, jurors were instructed to base their verdict on the evidence presented and the law, not on their personal feelings. Columbus evaded conviction with a hung jury, but when the children were allowed to cast their votes, based on their classroom research, instruction and personal opinion, the overwhelming majority voted to convict.
It was the second time that Ms. Inniss’ class held a mock trial. The first one – held 8 years ago against Columbus – was initiated by her and criminal defense attorney Alison Bernstein, whose son was then in the 5th grade.
The most active program has been at Rosa Parks, now in its 5th consecutive year. It was started by UC Berkeley law Professor Ty Alper, who’s also current President of the School Board, when his daughter was in 5th grade. He initiated it in association with one of his law students at the time, James Stevens, and has been helping to organize it ever since, along with support from many other parents, colleagues and BUSD staff.
This was the first time for Thousand Oaks, where it was initiated by Betsy Candler, who teaches at the UC Berkeley and Hastings law schools, after her 5th grade daughter informed her that Thousand Oaks should have a mock trial too. Ms. Candler then won the enthusiastic support and active participation of Principal Jen Corn and teachers Jeni Wendel, Bob Garrison and Robin Bogoshian, among a number of others.
The program appears to be having quite an impact. After presiding over the second Rosa Parks trial this year, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Charles Smiley, who also teaches trial advocacy at the Berkeley law school, told the gathering at a post-trial reception that he was greatly impressed by how concise, focused and fearless the students were. “I’d love to play the tape for my students!”