If you’ve never heard of the trial of Timmy McGraw, don’t consider yourself uninformed. McGraw vs. The People was a local, low-profile case of vandalism and mistaken identity. There were no life-changing revelations, the defendant was ruled not guilty and the parties parted amicably. Oh, and the lawyers, bailiff and witnesses were all aged 10 or 11 years old.
Ty Alper, a clinical law professor at UC Berkeley, was the driving force behind the mock trial on June 13 conducted by fifth graders at Rosa Parks Elementary School. (Watch the video of the trial embedded below to see how the kids performed.)
Alper and his colleague, James Stevens, trained the students who volunteered for the trial, wrote McGraw vs. the People, and supervised the trial as it unfolded in the courthouse. Why? Because, said Alper, having 10- and 11-year-olds participate in a mock trial would expose them to the lawyer’s world, introduce them to public speaking and be fun to boot.
Nico Estébanez participated in the trial as Police Officer Jones, a witness for the prosecution and the officer who arrested Timmy McGraw. His mother, Davi Grossman, attended and said that both the prosecution and defense blew her away, especially in light of the fact that the kids had written their own parts. Participating in the mock trial opened Nico’s mind to the interconnectedness of events and introduced him to gray areas that, as lawyers, the defense and prosecution teams needed to address and work around, she said.
Alper had never seen nor participated in a mock trial before so he and Stevens started from scratch when planning it. ”We knew that we didn’t want to put on a play and when we looked on the Internet for elementary school mock trials, everything we could find was scripted like a play.” So they wrote their own case, making sure that the content – the vandalism of a sculpture – was relatable and not too complex for the fifth-graders.
They spent 14 weeks coaching the students who had volunteered for the trial. The 45-minute before-school training sessions flew by, with heavy emphasis on public speaking and feedback from the students and teachers. They practiced with other imagined cases, learning how to identify and use facts, cross-examine witnesses and speak confidently before a jury. Alper said he was struck by how quickly the students picked up complex concepts; he was, in practice, teaching them law tactics similar to those he teaches at UC Berkeley. Enthusiasm and lack of bad habits contributed to the kids’ steep learning curve, said Alper.
The students’ zeal was revealed both in the trial and in their regular classes. Yessica Rodriguez, a fifth-grade teacher at Rosa Parks, had several students in her class participating in the mock trial, and said that in the weeks leading up to the trial, the students involved often found connections between what they were learning in their legal training sessions and the material they studied in regular classes. The nice thing about the trial, she said, was that kids of all learning speeds participated, and those who picked up the complex concepts faster than others were able to pause and help their classmates.
Demetrios Agretelis, the retired judge who presided over the case, also took the trial very seriously. Alper said he was pleased that the kids did not become too intimidated by him. Agretelis lightened the mood at the end of the day, however, when he said sincerely that the bailiff, Jack Egawa, was “one of the best he’d ever had.”
The success of the trial — from the large number of kids who signed up to its educational aspects — was obvious to all who participated, and Rodriguez hopes it will be repeated in the future.
“All the students shined,” she said.
Rosa Parks Elementary flips the switch for solar power (06.04.13)
Community arts, education programs get boost from Cal (06.05.13)
Rosa Parks chickens found dead, buried on campus (06.12.13)
Berkeley school recycling gets back on track (06.17.13)
Eden Teller, a graduate of Berkeley High School, is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She will be attending Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, next year.
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