Guilty! Middle school students convict in mock trial

Sheri Byrd
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***“Did the prosecution prove Alex Filn’s guilt in the death of Anita Lobel beyond a reasonable doubt? No, they did not. They didn’t prove Alex’s blood alcohol content was above the legal limit at the time of the accident. And this was an accident. Alex’s brakes failed on a dark night.”

These were the closing words of “defense attorney” T’Aja Binegar in a Jan. 18 mock trial at the Ramstein Legal Office court room. In this “trial,” all participants, from judge to jury, were members of Teresa Hahn’s eighth-grade Practical Law classes at Ramstein American Middle School.

Despite the defense’s arguments, “prosecuting attorneys” Amie Lentner and Heather Pocallan were able to convince the “jury” that “Alex’s” drinking was a factor leading to the death of “Anita” after a party.

***image2***Once arguments concluded, the jury deliberated 45 minutes before declaring the “accused” guilty of negligent homicide. Although the students did not have time for a sentencing phase, that conviction would, in the real world, carry a sentence of three to seven years in prison.

Throughout the trial, both prosecution and defense teams consulted constantly with their advisors. Ms. Hahn advised for the prosecution, and Tech. Sgt. Rita Pilialoha, U.S. Air Forces in Europe Judge Advocate NCOIC of international law, advised for the defense, including her son Brandon Pilialoha, “assistant defense attorney.”

Capt. Robert Jarman, 435th Air Base Wing Judge Advocate chief of contracts law, advised student judge Emily Rust during the trial, and has also assisted in teaching the RAMS Practical Law class once per week for the last two years.

The “accused,” played by Ryan Dorofee, sat silently through the three and half hour ordeal, choosing to take his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.

Additionally, students portrayed a 12-member jury, bailiff, court reporter, court artist and six witnesses ranging in roles from police officers to fellow party-goers from the night of the accident.

The trial was the culmination of the semester-long course, in which the students conducted two other mock trials in the school library.

***image3***“We worked really hard in class for two weeks to prepare,” Heather said. “But Amie and I also put in a lot of weekend time. We wanted to be sure we were ready.”

During regular classes, the students study common types of crimes, their defenses and sentences, the U.S. court system, and current events, such as trials in news.

“These kids are very educated,” said Sergeant Pilialoha. “I’m very impressed. In 18 weeks, they have really learned the basics of U.S. criminal law.”

Students volunteered, or nominated others, for the various court roles, followed by a class vote on who would play each role. One entire class section was the jury, one was prosecution, the third defense. Ms. Hahn said she tries to make sure that students have the chance to try a variety of roles during the semester.

“This class has really had an impact on me,” Amie said. “You learn so much. I really want to be a lawyer now.”

Each student who participated in the mock trial, even as observing members of the gallery, will be graded on their preparation, professional appearance, appropriate speech – without the usual “likes” and “ums” so often heard among students – and general behavior at the trial.

The RAMS Practical Law class, in its second year, is currently the only one offered at the middle school level in the Kaiserslautern district.