Students present first West Virginia Law Adventure mock trials

By Chris Dickerson | May 1, 2008

Caitlyn Walters, left, and Annie DiGregorio were defense attorneys for James Dylan Taylor. (Photos by Jeff Gentner for the West Virginia Supreme Court)

Chief Justice Spike Maynard talks to Andrew Jackson Middle School students before the start of Wednesday's mock trial.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman speaks to the students.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman donned a powdered wig as he oversaw the mock trial.

Prosecuting attorney Grace Smiley, right, feigns tears after the verdict of not guilty was read. Sitting beside her is fellow prosecutor Taylor Painter.

CHARLESTON – Eighth-grade students from Andrew Jackson Middle School helped kick off a new state Supreme Court mock trial program that is expected to be statewide in a few years.

A class of Andrew Jackson students performed its original script April 30 in Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman's courtroom.

A Point Pleasant Middle School class will perform its original script on May 8 at the Mason County Courthouse in Point Pleasant.

Those students are the first participants in the Supreme Court's new West Virginia Law Adventure mock trial program for middle schools. The Andrew Jackson class and Point Pleasant Middle School classes are piloting the West Virginia Law Adventure program for the West Virginia Supreme Court this spring. Each has been working on its script for about a month.

Unlike other mock trial programs in which students perform cases using scripts or materials prepared by adults, in West Virginia Law Adventure each class was asked to write its own script. The script had to be a criminal trial based on "Conduct in public places (such as sports events, malls, concerts, schools etc.) – Rights and Responsibilities of Individuals and Institutions."

The West Virginia program and the concept for the scripts are adapted with permission from the New Jersey State Bar Foundation's original, award-winning Law Adventure Competition and Programs for grades seven and eight.

All middle schools in Kanawha County, Mason County and three other counties that have yet to be determined will be invited to participate in West Virginia Law Adventure as an expanded pilot project in the 2008-2009 school year. The Supreme Court plans to launch the program statewide in the 2009-2010 school year.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Spike Maynard proposed West Virginia Law Adventure to the West Virginia Board of Education in February, and the Board approved the program.

Speaking before the Andrew Jackson mock trial, Maynard said Americans love what goes on in courtrooms.
"There are 21 separate television shows on every day where a judge is presiding over a mock trial," Maynard said Wednesday before the Andrew Jackson mock trial. "In addition, anytime of the day or night, 'Law & Order' is on.

"Students think they know a lot about crime and courts because that's the focus of so many television shows. Unfortunately, most of those shows and movies bear little resemblance to reality.

"What really goes on is truly fascinating, dramatic, high energy and very intense.

"If you were here for a real murder trial, you would be riveted. It's very dramatic. It's better than anything on television."

Maynard recalled a ninth-grade field trip his class took to the Mingo County Courthouse. He said that trip led him down the path to where he is today.

"It just so happened that a murder trial was going on," he said. "A man had been charged with shooting and killing his wife and her grandmother. Their two young boys were witnesses. One was 4 or so."

Maynard said he and his classmates were goofing off, doing things teenage boys typically do. Until they got into the courtroom and the teacher "threatened them with our lives."

Then, he said, he was riveted.

"An old lawyer named Ursell Slater was defending the man," Maynard said. "He made his closing arguments. He said the state was out to get his client and that the Constitution guarantees liberty until the jury says he's guilty.

"It wasn't an argument I would make, but I was hooked. That's when I decided that was what I was going to do for a living. That's always when I started reading the newspapers because that trial ended in a hung jury, so I read about his second trial every day when it happened.

"Now, I've been doing this for 35 years, and I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Maynard told the Andrew Jackson students that they were part of history.

"You're here today as the first part in this program we hope is statewide in a few years," he said. "So don't mess this up!"

Maynard said the students' script, which focused on whether a bartender poisoned a man's drinks to put him into a coma, was quite interesting.

"I'm eager to see how it turns out," he said. "It's better than any mock trial scripts I've ever used."

Once West Virginia Law Adventure is an annual statewide program, at the beginning of each school year, all middle schools will be invited to have classes write mock trial scripts. Schools can have more than one class participate and can submit more than one script.

The scripts will have to be developed around a theme that the Young Lawyers Committee of the State Bar will choose each year. The scripts will have to follow a certain format that will be described in a rules packet that will be distributed each fall.

During one week in January each year, participating classes must go to a courthouse to perform their scripts in front of a circuit judge, family court judge, or magistrate. In early February teachers will mail the scripts to the State Bar and the Young Lawyers Committee will choose two winners in each middle school grade level.

The winners will be invited to Charleston on one day in March to perform their mock trials with one or more Supreme Court justice sitting as judge.

The State Bar Young Lawyers Committee, the State Bar Foundation and Supreme Court together are expected to cover the cost of field trips to the local courthouses and the cost of transporting the winners to Charleston each year.

The West Virginia Supreme Court is one of many state Supreme Courts with active education outreach programs because the judicial branch is the least understood branch of government.

A Harris Interactive poll done for the American Bar Association in 2005 found that of the 1,002 adults surveyed nationally, only 55 percent could correctly identify the three branches of government, and only 48 percent correctly identified the role of the federal judiciary. Twenty-nine percent incorrectly believed the judiciary advises the President and Congress about the legality of an action before they take it.

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