head: A tourney in court | SummitDaily.com

head: A tourney in court

Reid Williams

FARMER’S KORNER – When the students in Summit High School’s trial advocacy class voice an objection, it has less to do with homework than it does a point of law.

Wednesday, members of the class, which introduces students to the rudiments of America’s justice system, put on a mock trial, including attorneys, witnesses, a suspect, a judge and jury. The trial was staged for an audience of students as part of Law Day, a project of the American Bar Association to raise awareness of courtroom proceedings among youth.

The case played out by the students was an abbreviated version of one of the four cases the students tried in a regional high school competition held in Grand Junction in February. Volunteer teacher and Frisco attorney Eric Fisher said the competition and Law Day project are an important tool for introducing students to civil and criminal cases – before it’s too late.

“We want to get kids to understand the legal system at an earlier age,” Fisher said. “Rather than waiting until they get in trouble as adults or (before they) want to sue someone, why not do it in high school? Even if none of them go on to law school, it’s good exposure.”

The case tried Wednesday was a fictitious one. It involved the pledge master of a university social club who was accused of hazing and manslaughter in the death of a fellow student during an initiation ceremony. Student-prosecutors called on the investigating police officer to provide their evidence, while defense attorneys put the suspect on the stand in her defense. The jurors were chosen from students in the audience.

The trial was not scripted, leaving students the burden of following proper procedures and making their best case. The proceedings featured things most television viewers are familiar with: opening and closing arguments, objections, testimony and cross-examination and submission of evidence. In the end, the defendant was found guilty of hazing, but not guilty on a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Thanks to donations from the Continental Divide Bar Association, the students earned $75 each for winning the split verdicts.

For French exchange student Celine Destenay, the class and mock trial provided an insight into America.

“It’s been very interesting,” Destenay said. “I’ve never been to a trial in a French court, so it’s hard to compare. But I feel pretty good about the American court system, especially if the lawyers are as nice as this.”

Prosecuting attorney Chris Schaffer, who competed in the February tournament, said he couldn’t decide which made him more nervous – putting on the trial for his fellow students Wednesday, or the competition setting of a real courtroom filled with judges and lawyers.

The students enrolled in the class for various reasons, Fisher said. Some come from drama or speech backgrounds, others are interested in law as a career or because their parents practice. At least one student discovered he didn’t want to be a lawyer.

“I thought about it as a possible career,” said Kyle Smith. “But not now so much. It’s too much work. People don’t realize all the behind-the-scenes stuff that lawyers have to do before it ever gets to court.”

District Court Judge Terry Ruckriegle presided over the trial and said he was encouraged by the students’ performance. Ruckriegle said he hopes the experience stimulates an interest in the legal system for all the students.

“We’re not going to teach them law at this point, but we hope they see that the law affects a significant portion of their lives,” he said. “Someday, they could be involved in a case of their own, be called as a witness or to a jury. And we all elect representatives who make laws that affect our lives.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.

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