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Barrett Scholars learn, practice mock-trial skills


July 18, 2008

It was what you’d expect, at least initially, from a bunch of teenagers in a courtroom: backpacks heaped onto the prosecution and defense teams’ tables, witnesses sitting with their friends instead of behind said tables, and a smattering of backwards-worn baseball caps and sunglasses.

But a mock trial performed on Wednesday, June 25, by 16 middle-school students from around the state far exceeded the expectations of their coach and teacher, Jimmy Cool, a second-year student at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Without banging a gavel, Cool brought order to the courtroom, directing that backpacks be stowed, witnesses be organized and attire be proper.

“The students did wonderfully,” Cool says. “None of them had any prior experience in trial advocacy, and few had any experience with public speaking, yet they were able to deliver well-crafted and insightful examinations and speeches.”

The gifted students are Barrett Honors Scholars, who spent three weeks in June on the campus of Arizona State University’s Barrett, The Honors College, including two days preparing and trying two imaginary cases in the College of Law’s high-tech courtroom. The students, from as far away as Lake Havasu City, took a humanities course, then chose from electives in four fields – engineering, biology, computer digital animation and the law. Those choosing law got to play the roles of attorneys and witnesses for both the prosecution and defense.

Sean Currie, a 15-year-old from Fort Mohave near the Arizona-Nevada state line, delivered a convincing, professional opening argument as the defense attorney in the case of The State v. Jordan Archer. Tailor-made for teenagers, it was a case involving manslaughter in connection with an accident and an alleged charge of driving under the influence, in which the defendant swerved her car twice to avoid hitting two possums crossing the road.

“This is a case about a curve ball,” Currie solemnly told the two jurors, also students. “Nature threw a curve ball at Jordan Archer, and she swung and missed. This was just an accident.”

Currie, who will be a sophomore this fall at River Valley High, wants to be a defense attorney when he grows up.

“One of my teachers said I’d make a good lawyer,” he says, admitting to an argumentative streak.

Katie Biegel, 14, an incoming sophomore at Mountain View High in Mesa, says she plans to seek out a mock trial club at her high because of her experience in Cool’s course, which was dubbed, “The Barrett Summer Stock Production of `Law & Order.’”

“Law is something I’ve never really explored,” says Biegel, who appeared prepared enough to start work at the Attorney General’s Office tomorrow. “I can take engineering or science classes any time, but the law isn’t something I can get just anywhere.”

In the course, “Jury Trial Advocacy: Perspectives on Legal Persuasion,” Cool taught the students the basics of public speaking, oral and written rhetoric, acting and portraying a character, how to analyze legal and factual material from both sides of a problem, the Federal Rules of Evidence, trial procedure, how to work with others in a small group setting, and storytelling.

Cool acted as the judge in the cases, and provided narration on a DVD, copies of which were given to the scholars’ parents.

Barrett Summer Scholars is a residential program hosted by the Office of the Vice President for University Student Initiatives and Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. The law course was added this year at the suggestion of past students in the summer program, says Jo Ann Martinez, coordinator of ASU’s University Student Initiatives.