It wasn’t like anything they ever saw depicted in television legal dramas.
But by taking part in a mock trial project some Montgomery County students enrolled in local homeschooling programs had the opportunity recently to obtain a comprehensive view of the criminal justice system.
More than a dozen eighth- and ninth-grade students from the Souderton and Willow Grove areas visited courtrooms, met judges, prosecutors, court administrators, a member of the media and other courthouse workers as they explored vocations in the legal arena.
“I think it was exciting and encouraging for them to see the jury box, to talk to the judge, to talk to a prosecutor and a court administrator just to see what is involved to make this process seem as seamless as it is at times,” said Shannan Mazlo, a homeschooling parent who helped organize two days of visits to the courthouse.
“I think the importance of it was it’s not ‘Law and Order,’” added fellow homeschooling parent Melissa Davis. “In our judicial system, it’s not just a lawyer and a judge but there are other opportunities, there are clerks, there are court reporters. There are definitely different dimensions. I think that gives them a unique perspective.”
Mazlo and Davis are supported as homeschoolers by Classical Conversations, a nationwide community of homeschoolers who follow a classical model of education through a Christian worldview.
County Court Administrator Michael Kehs and Assistant District Attorney Cara McMenamin gave the visiting students and their parents a tour of courtrooms and answered the students’ probing questions about what it’s like to work at a courthouse and as a prosecutor. Judge William R. Carpenter graciously took time out of his day to address the students who sat in the jury box. Some also took a seat in the witness box.
|Michael Kehs and Cara McMenamin/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.|
Sitting in the witness box, the students smiled from ear to ear, and said the experience was awesome and also somewhat intimidating.
I also was invited to address the students briefly, during which I explained the exciting job of being a court news reporter.
“This is the age where they can be really excited about their futures and this can be a pivotal moment for them,” Mazlo reminded me. “Maybe this will ignite a spark in one of the kids, that maybe this will be a career path that they didn’t consider and will now want to pursue.”
The students were polite, energized and appeared eager to learn about the court system and it was inspiring to see how interested the youngsters were in the world around them. I have no doubt some of them caught the bug to be a lawyer, a judge, and yes, even a journalist.
“Thank you for coming along with us on the tour. I really enjoyed your explanations,” one student wrote to me in a note of thanks.
“Thank you for your time and expertise! Thank you for sharing your perspective with us,” other students wrote.
|Students on Mock Trial Teams/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.|
After an initial visit and tour, the students returned to the courthouse for a mock trial competition last month. The students observed how a case develops from crime to conviction over the course of 15 weeks preparing for the competition.
“They had to work through a substantial amount of information and determine what was important to their case. They knew it so well, they were able to present it to the judge and jury,” Mazlo said.
The jury was comprised of a panel of volunteers who indicated they were impressed by the students’ professionalism in the courtroom.
The mock case involved that of a South Carolina man who was charged with murder and possession of a dangerous animal after his dog fatally mauled a teenager who went onto his property.
“There were a lot of red herrings to really cause the kids to dig deep and figure out their strategy,” Mazlo said. “It really brought out their critical thinking skills. A lot of the kids played dual roles as lawyers and witnesses and so they had to think on their feet.”
Each team presented the case twice, once as the prosecution and then as the defense, devising a strategy to defend the accused.
“I’m so proud that nerves didn’t take over. They all did phenomenal. No one really tripped up or made any obvious mistakes,” Mazlo said.
Judge Carpenter presided over the competition and provided the future legal eagles with advice on the handling of evidence, trial strategy and delivery. The students said it was an honor to meet the judge.
|Mock Trial Team/Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.|
“We are incredibly thankful for the generosity of the judge and his willingness to give back to the community and sit in on the mock trial. We’re so thankful he took the time to nurture the children and help educate them about our court system,” Mazlo said.
It didn’t matter who prevailed during the trial, it was not about winning but about showcasing the skills they learned. I believe all the students were winners because they gained so much knowledge by participating in the exercise.
For a few days, the students, many with dreams of public service in their futures, were involved in something special, something important, and something they will remember for a very long time.
Kudos to Judge Carpenter, Kehs and McMenamin for being role models and taking time out of their hectic schedules to help mentor young people.