ELYRIA — Did Leslie Lane burn down a religious group’s community center and start a riot in an attempt to run them out of the town of Woodville, Oregon, after she saw their presence as a threat to her community and its annual summer concert festival?
That was the question posed to “jurors” in the case of “State v. Lane,” one of a number of cases being heard during the annual Educational Service Center of Lorain County Gifted Consortium mock trial, held Thursday at the Lorain County Courthouse in Elyria.
With weeks and months of memorization and practice under their belts, almost 400 students from seven Lorain County school districts participated in Thursday’s events, presenting either their defense of Lane, prosecuting her on arson and incitement to riot charges or listening to the evidence as members of a jury.
During two sessions Thursday, 396 students in grades five through eight from Amherst, Avon Lake, Firelands, North Ridgeville, Oberlin, Perkins and Wellington competed against each other in several mock civil and criminal trials.
They were assisted by their teachers, chaperones, ESC staff and real-life attorneys. Students learned courtroom etiquette and how to form arguments and debates, write questions, speak in public and act, teachers said.
Real attorneys — in the case of “State v. Lane,” Cheryl Lukacs of Avon Lake — acted as judges. While jurors deliberated, she coached both teams on the importance of speaking to the jury and the judge when at all possible and proper courtroom procedures and etiquette.
“Professionalism is crucial in our legal system,” Lukacs said, including not reacting with excitement or disappointment at a verdict. Fist-bumping or high-fiving, “that kind of thing can seem rehearsed,” she said, and “there will be plenty of time after for that.”
The mock trial program also addresses state language arts and social studies standards, said ESC gifted supervisor Cathy Fischer. Students also learn critical and creative thinking and communication skills, listening, public speaking and reading, then put them into practice, according to the ESC.
Being in a real courtroom makes the experience “more authentic” for students, Fischer said, and can prepare the students for the real world, including the prospect of future jury service or a career in the legal system.
For her team, preparation included “a lot of practice and videos,” McCormick Middle School fifth-grade teacher Jacqueline Woods said. Her team of gifted and honors fifth-graders defended Lane against the charges of arson against a sixth-grade team from Troy Intermediate School in Avon Lake.
Avon Lake teacher Jeni Moore also prepared her students with videos of collegiate mock trial competitions she found online, she said. She chose interested students from a group of “high performers” and worked with them on the case for half of their 53-minute class time.
Moore said she gave students a questionnaire to determine which ones could be “verbally assertive” when questioning witnesses, but also let them form their own case and questions based on the affidavits provided.
Shortly after closing arguments, the sides received a verdict: Guilty on all charges, and a victory for the Avon Lake team. Keeping it professional, all the students shook hands before celebrating and posing for pictures.
From beginning to end, Moore said she saw her students form into “a whole new group.” Visibly proud, she related how one of her prosecutors “left the witness speechless” with one of his questions.
She added, with a laugh: “There’s no one more hard or judgmental on someone than a sixth-grader.”