8th Grade Mock Trial
The 8th graders held their annual mock trial yesterday, acting as attorneys, witnesses, and jury while learning about the legal process in criminal cases. Students had the advisory help of Virginia attorneys Elizabeth Hanes, Kati Dean, and Britney McPheron, as well as the judicial oversight of Maria Jankowski, Deputy Executive Director of the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, which provides public representation for defendants unable to secure an attorney.
Students had some time last week to familiarize themselves with the case. Each witness, attorney, and juror received a case packet with information specific to the role she would play in the trial. After a brief meeting with the legal teams’ advising attorneys the morning of the trial, court was in session.
“It was really cool, and it was interesting seeing classmates in those positions,” said one student of watching the trial unfold. Some were surprised by how complex a trial could get, noting that media portrayals don’t capture every aspect of a trial, especially the sheer length of some trials. “I knew witnesses spoke, but I didn’t realize it took up so much of the time in the actual trial.”
Student attorneys on both sides questioned and cross-examined witnesses, fielding objections in real time and adapting their line of questioning to stay within the boundaries of the court’s conventions. “I was surprised by the number of objections,” one frustrated student attorney relayed. Students also did not expect for the two expert witnesses to have opposing testimonies, further muddling the trajectory of the trial.
After the verdict was delivered, both legal teams talked about their difficulties, their strengths, and their frustrations. One student attorney expressed disappointment in the guilty verdict, wishing in particular that they’d all had more clarification on reasonable doubt. “There was not enough evidence!”
The overwhelming impression students had was that it was enlightening to be able to talk to the guest attorneys after the trial ended. “We got to ask questions and figure out things like when and why you would object, how to deal with the objections, and the difference between civil and criminal cases.” Some students made connections beyond the courtroom. “It was nice to have actual lawyers come in and hear about their takes on social justice aspects of the legal system.”
History teacher Taylor Hollander organizes this event every year. While the verdict changes from year to year, the more general outcomes are the same--students actively engage in a civics lesson that teaches them about the judicial process; the legal teams learn to think on their feet to construct arguments, building confidence along the way; and students get a chance to see and talk to female leaders and role models in the legal sphere.