Trial and error

Avery County courthouse serves as classroom for group of Lees-McRae Criminal Justice students getting hands-on experience with mock trial exercise

It was a typical weekday afternoon at the Avery County Courthouse–prosecuting and defense attorneys filed into the courtroom, jury members took their seats, and court was called into session by the clerk. On this particular day, however, the court was made up of Lees-McRae students carrying out their annual mock trial project for their Judicial Process and Court Ethics course.

On Friday, Nov. 18, these students, led by Program Coordinator and Senior Instructor for Criminal Justice Tracy Hoilman, brought weeks’ worth of in-class preparation to life with one of the program’s biggest experiential learning opportunities of the year. In a real courtroom, in front of impartial jury members, the defense and prosecution teams argued the cases they had been building.

To begin their prep work, the class was broken into groups. Some students took on the roles of the defense, while others the prosecution. This amounted to two attorneys per side, along with the defendant, the defense team’s client, and the victim of the crime, represented by the prosecution. Additional students became witnesses, the judge, and the clerk/bailiff, rounding out the roles that would be present in a courtroom during a real trial.

After being assigned their roles, the prosecution determined the charge that would be levied against the defendant, and the groups set off on the process of building their evidence and defining their case. This year the defendant, portrayed by junior Wildlife Biology major Tristin Hall, would be charged with felonious assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and inflicting serious injury, robbery with a firearm or other dangerous weapon, and common law robbery.

The defendant, Tristin Hall, is cross examined by the prosecuting attorneys Madison Rowe and Jessica Henderson.

“It’s an adversarial system, but the ultimate goal is for justice to be served. It’s not an us versus them kind of thing, it’s that we both want to get to the truth,” Hoilman said. “The prosecution’s goal is to get to the truth, not to win the case. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in that, but they know the ultimate goal is for justice to be served, and if they find out that Tristin didn’t do it, then they should let it go. That’s how it should work.”

After working with the groups to build witness testimonies, find evidence, and determine how each case would be argued, it was time for the court to finally come into session.

The trial

To give the students the most accurate possible experience, normal court proceedings were followed. After the judge, portrayed by Brooke Roberson, gave a brief introduction of the trial process to the jurymade up of professors and other Lees-McRae studentsopening statements from the prosecution and defense introduced the facts of the case.

In this year’s scenario, after falling into debt with a drug dealer, Hall received a video message threatening his life and the lives of his loved ones should he fail to repay. Feeling cornered and out of options, Hall executed a robbery at the Circle K gas station in Banner Elk, North Carolina, during which he carried a concealed firearm.

“During the altercation, the defendant’s handgun, which had not been drawn up to this point, went off and shot Ms. Smith in her left leg. The defendant then left with the money, but that is not the whole story,” Defense Attorney Neeleigh Maddox said in her opening statement. “The prosecution would have you believe that Tristin Hall is guilty of felonious assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill and inflict serious bodily injury, and of robbery with a firearm or other dangerous weapon, but today we present proof that Tristin was only acting to protect his own life and the lives of the people he loved.”

Along with Hall and a second defense attorney, Jonathon Brand, the defense called two witnesses to the stand: Kara Bush who was patronizing the gas station at the time of the event, and Hall himself.

Defendant Tristin Hall speaks with the defense attorneys, Neeleigh Maddox and Jonathon Brand.

The victim, portrayed by sophomore Psychology major Thailand Smith, became involved in the altercation when she sought to intervene and physically stop Hall from leaving with the bag of money. As the two began to struggle over the bag Hall removed his weapon and discharged it into Smith’s leg, causing a major injury that required physical therapy and continues to impact her mobility one year after the event.

“The victim in this case, Thailand Smith, was trying to be a good and selfless citizen and stop the defendant from robbing the place,” Prosecuting Attorney Madison Rowe said in her opening statement. “The victim suffers from the trauma of this heinous event, and to this day still has trouble walking.”

The prosecution, composed of Smith, Rowe, and another attorney portrayed by Jessica Henderson, called three witnesses to the stand. These were Grey Huffstetler, the Circle K employee who was working at the gas station at the time of the robbery; Mary Johnson, portraying the lead officer assigned to the case; and Smith herself.

Mary Johnson, who portrayed a law enforcement officer assigned to the case and was called to the stand as a witness for the prosecution, is cross examined by the defense.

After each witness was called to the stand and questioned, the opposing side was given the opportunity to cross-examine the witness’ testimony, after which closing statements were delivered to the jury, and the jurors were taken out of the courtroom to discuss their decision where they found Hall guilty on all counts.

How hands-on helps

While this exercise is a fun way to learn about the trial system, Hoilman said experiential learning in the criminal justice field is about more than just having a day off campus. Teaching this lesson in a real-world setting provides the hands-on experience, self-assuredness, and teamwork necessary to successfully enter the professional world of criminal justice.

In all four aspects of the criminal justice system, which Hoilman lists as law enforcement, courts, corrections, and restorative justice, professionals will have exposure to the courtroom. She said allowing these students to feel comfortable in this space, which can often seem intimidating and scary, is just as important as teaching them the procedures of a trial.

Program Coordinator and Senior Instructor for Criminal Justice Tracy Hoilman talks to students Jessica Henderson and Madison Rowe who acted as the prosecuting attorneys for the mock trial.

“They gain confidence and the ability to work with others, but also the ability to trust yourself. It’s also a lesson in preparation,” Hoilman said. “I never got anything like that when I was in school. We never did anything experiential, and when I first started my job there were so many things being thrown at me, and the courtroom was one of those things. It was very intimidating for me.”

Hoilman hopes that by providing her students with the opportunity to learn in the courtroom itself, they will feel more prepared once they enter the workforce, whether that be in within the courtroom or without.

By Maya JarrellNovember 23, 2022