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Law students’ mock trial gives youngsters a glimpse of the real world

March 29, 2007

Pupils at a Phoenix middle school recently got a real-world view of crime scene investigation, legal case building and courtroom proceedings with help from students at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

The ASU students – Brandon Batt, Ben Wiesinger, Alastair Gamble, Kolby Granville and Thomas Williams – worked with gifted students at Santa Maria Middle School on a mock murder and trial in February.

The law students guided 63 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the GATES Language Arts program, headed by Santa Maria teacher Stephanie Lawrence. Lawrence and her brother, Kenneth Arend, a police officer in Winslow , Ariz., planned the exercise as a more compelling way to teach the children persuasive techniques, part of the GATES curriculum, than by reading books and writing reports.

“What better way to do that (teach persuasion) than over a person's life, because you're either putting a murderer back on the streets or putting an innocent man to death,” Lawrence says. “It was very interesting to watch the sixth-graders, who acted as the jury. They pressured one girl to vote for a conviction, even though she thought he was innocent.”

The project involved the “murder” of Daniel, an eighth-grader, and the investigation, arrest and trial of Fabian and Brianne, also eighth-graders. Seventh-graders acted as investigators, and the other eighth-graders were attorneys and the judge.

Batt, a first-year law student, worked with the four-student team of prosecutors, helping them interview witnesses, catalog evidence (including the splatter patterns Arend made with red paint) and prepare for trial by organizing witnesses and developing questions.

“The students did everything from start to finish,” says Batt, who's done other pro bono work such as Wills for Heroes and the Homeless Legal Assistance Project. “What I enjoyed most about the day was the sense of curiosity and enjoyment from the students doing something legal. The teacher made a huge effort to make sure this project ran smoothly, and I really think the students became interested in the law.”

K Royal, the College of Law 's director of pro bono programs and student life, says such projects expose law students to new cultures and communities and remind them of the reasons they came to law school in the first place.

“It reinvigorates their love of the law, and it also reinforces the fact that they have learned something in law school,” Royal says.

In addition to learning about torts, legal research and jurisprudence, projects like that at Santa Maria teach law students their community needs them, she says.

“There is so much unmet need out there that we charge our students in law school to give back once they are attorneys,” Royal says. “If every attorney gave five hours a year, it would have a huge impact.”

Lawrence 's students are fans of television's “CSI,” and this experience helped them see that TV isn't anything like the real world.

For example, Seth, the judge, was amazed at the level of concentration he needed to listen and process testimony, and the young jurors said they had to focus to keep their minds from wandering.

But more importantly, she says, the project may have planted in some students the seeds of possibility, of what they can do with their lives.

“We're in a Title One area, where the students don't have the money to dream big,” Lawrence says. “Perhaps this will help them someday become investigators, lawyers and even judges.”