Mr. Chris Kelley’s Intro to Law class at St. Ignatius High School has spent the year studying the foundations of law and what goes into making laws. They covered criminal, civil and contract law.
At the end of the quarter last week, students held a mock trial that employed much of the knowledge they had accrued through the year.
“For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been learning actual trial procedures, such as writing opening statements, learning how to question witnesses, introducing evidence, objections, closing arguments,” Kelley said. “They learned that the prosecution has the burden of proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ and what that looks like, and what the defense has to do.”
Kelley said that throughout the year Lake County Public Defender Eldena Bear Don’t Walk advised and mentored the class through video conferencing. She explained various jurisdictions such as state, tribe or county, and how they interrelate.
Once the mock trial segment of the course began, they practiced with a sample case. Each student wrote an opening statement and then read it in front of the class. Each received specific, detailed feedback so they had the skills going into the mock trial they then held.
“She taught us how to question witnesses, what to look for, how to make closing arguments,” Kelley said.
Each student was assigned a role, including defendant (Ashlee Peterson), prosecution (Joseph Ashley and Dustin Trimble) and defense attorneys (Dominick Paulsen and Sydney Brander), and witnesses. Bear Don’t Walk served as judge, and school resource officer Kilee Henry served as bailiff and court security.
Students had to be method actors, prepared to ask and answer questions related to the role they played, Kelley said.
“They got the packet, and I gave them very little help. They came up with the questions and learned how to bring up objections. Closing arguments were written after hearing the testimony, so it was almost an impromptu speech.”
Kelley has led class mock trials four previous years at another school; this is his first at St. Ignatius.
“This class is by far the best I’ve seen. They were well prepared.”
The case was a tough one, Kelley said. The premise was that a woman was charged with mitigated deliberate homicide for killing her abusive husband as she was threatened with violence. The prosecution attempted to show it was premeditated and planned, while defense asserted she was justified in fearing for her life.
A jury of students, seniors from outside the class, heard the case and deliberated separately. As they deliberated, Bear Don’t Walk took the time to give feedback for what the attorneys had done well and what they could work on.
“She did a really good job working with the students,” Kelley said. “I sat in on deliberations. The jury had a hard time because both sides did so well.”
They landed on a guilty, but justified verdict, which Bear Don’t Walk had explained was one of their options. It has the effect of a not guilty verdict.
Learning how a trial works is an important citizen skill, Kelley said.
“Once they turn 18, they are eligible to serve on a jury. They don’t usually get to see what it really means to be on a jury, that they have to work together to determine if guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
He shows the movie “12 Angry Men” to his classes as an example.
Next year, the class may compete in a statewide mock trial competition, Kelley said.