Students from Three Rivers Christian School tried a fictional case Monday at the Cowlitz County Hall of Justice, but the contents of their mock trial were anything but trivial.
The high school seniors debated whether an 18-year-old man, charged with premeditated murder, acted in self defense in killing his stepfather. The student playing the accused, “Dale Reynolds,” said his stepfather had abused him since he was 6, and he feared for his life. All roles, from judge to jurors, were played by students.
Ultimately, a jury made up of middle- and high-school students convicted Reynolds of murder. They cited a lack of supporting evidence for Reynolds’ abuse and Reynolds’ statements to a classmates about his plans to kill his stepfather.
Superior Court Judge Marilyn Haan, who selected the mock case, said the students handled the weighty trial “really well.” It’s one of several cases Haan said she’s had classrooms simulate.
“It’s to really show them the seriousness of what goes on in the courtrooms,” Haan said. “These are real issues that we deal with. It’s not like what they see on television.”
Along with the mock trial, students also sat in for real criminal hearings and were given a behind-the-scenes tour of how the courts and jail operate.
Kathryn Wright, 17, said that though she didn’t have a strong interest in working in the legal system, she was excited by the chance to participate in the mock trial and found the courts interesting.
“I think it’s pretty cool to experience it,” Wright said.
Matthew Jabusch, 18, played one of Reynolds’ defense attorneys. He said his look inside the real criminal hearings was fascinating and impressed upon him the work attorneys do to prepare for cases.
Jabusch said he was impressed by “how well they do their jobs in there. They’re always on point and know what they’re doing.”
Michael Moreno, 19, played detective Nickie Loo, the officer who responded to the shooting and arrested Reynolds. He said his tour of the Hall of Justice revealed parts of the criminal justice system that most people don’t see.
“It gives me perspective on everything,” Moreno said.
Cowlitz County defense attorney Simmie Baer sat with students during the mock trial and helped them formulate questions. Given the facts presented in the case, she said she was impressed the jury returned a guilty verdict.
“They listened. That was excellent,” Baer said. “There wasn’t enough development of the facts (to find Reynolds innocent.) But it was a first time run-through. ... I think they did a good job.”
Baer added that she tries to show students that the job of the defense isn’t simply responding to the prosecutor’s claims. It’s about “telling your client’s story,” she said.
Civics teacher Richard Copeland organized the class visit along with Haan. Copeland said he’s shown the students classroom examples of the Supreme Court and Executive Branch, but he “wanted to give them some real world experience” of what goes on in a courthouse.
“This is a long process,” Copeland said. “They actually see (that) it’s a job you have to do daily, with mundane things. It’s not all Perry Mason.”
And he said the topic was an important one for students to see: “Trying to sugarcoat things would be not beneficial to them. ... We want students to be able to go out into the world and actually wrestle with, and work with difficult situations, and know how to handle (them.)”