Court is now in session

Criminal Justice students take over Avery County courthouse to get full judicial experience

It was a beautiful fall afternoon in Newland, North Carolina, and court was in session. 

The final case of the day was a felony trial for a grisly attempted murder charge. Lees-McRae senior Sydney Sutherland stood accused of trying to beat her roommate, sophomore Zoey Walkingstick, to death with a baseball bat. 

Sutherland wasn’t actually on trial, of course. As the judge—junior Criminal Justice and Psychology major Hannah Gunsallus—reminded the court, this wasn’t a typical case. Juries generally aren’t made up of a defendant’s classmates and friends. Legal teams don’t participate in a practice trial before the main event. And lawyers are usually required to have passed the bar before representing clients in court. 

The case being heard today was the culmination of hours of work by Criminal Justice students in the Judicial Process and Court Ethics course. The scenario may have been fake, but the effort put into interviewing “witnesses,” collecting “evidence,” and preparing to address a judge and jury was very real. No one was actually going to jail, but the emotional stakes were still high. And only one side could win. 

Representing the state of North Carolina were prosecutors Autumn Dockery, a freshman Criminal Justice major, and Camryn Belin, a senior Criminal Justice and Psychology double major. On the side of the defense were junior Criminal Justice majors Isaac LaFunor and Gracie Holman. Other students served as witnesses (three on each side, including Walkingstick, a Psychology major and Criminal Justice minor, and Sutherland, a Biology major and Criminal Justice minor), jurors, the bailiff, the clerk/court reporter, and the judge. Overseeing the whole event was Tracy Hoilman, senior instructor and program coordinator for Criminal Justice.  

Judicial Process and Court Ethics is a required class for all Criminal Justice majors and minors. According to Hoilman, all students who plan to work in the United States criminal justice system need to be familiar with how the court system works, even if they don’t plan to pursue a legal career. The mock trial provides that familiarity as well as an opportunity to build other valuable skills like research and public speaking.  

“Nearly every facet of the criminal justice system involves court procedures at some point to a varying degree,” Hoilman said. “It is our hope that, when students have completed the course, they will be able to navigate their way through the basic judicial processes and have an understanding of how judicial processes fit into the criminal justice system overall.” 

Of all the Criminal Justice majors participating in the mock trial, only LaFunor plans to pursue a legal career, which added an extra layer of pressure. While all criminal justice professionals need to thoroughly understand courtroom procedure and due process, for LaFunor, this was his first brush with the rest of his professional life. Knowing that, he chose to take a risk.  

Rather than try to dispute the facts of the case, the defense conceded that the events did play out as described by the prosecution. However, the defense argued, the jury should still return a not guilty verdict because Sutherland was legally insane at the time of the crime.  

The “not guilty by reason of insanity” defense is popular in fictional courtrooms, but rare in the real world: less than 1% of cases in the U.S. use the defense. It’s difficult to prove and often requires the defense to acknowledge that their client did commit the crime.  

In an actual trial, the odds are that the defense and prosecution would make a plea deal (around 98% of cases are currently resolved using this method), but the class required students to successfully argue a full case. So, LaFunor decided to give the tough defense a shot.  

“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” LaFunor said. “That’s why I had to do it.” 

Over the course of the afternoon, the details of the case slowly came to light. Walkingstick and Sutherland were childhood best friends who eventually became roommates at Lees-McRae. Their freshman year they both met Elias Dietrich (another Criminal Justice major) and he and Walkingstick soon started a relationship. Things were fine until September 2022, when Sutherland stopped taking her prescription medication.  

According to the defense, Sutherland had a difficult childhood, moving from an abusive home through a variety of foster care situations. For the six years leading up to the incident with Walkingstick Sutherland had been seeing a psychiatrist, who prescribed strong anti-depressants to treat her PTSD and mental illness. On the witness stand the psychiatrist, played by Criminal Justice major and sophomore Carter Hawkes, told the court that going off the medication could have dire consequences. Any negative experience that brings up past trauma—such as an argument—could trigger a violent state.  

The defense claimed that such an argument occurred on Wednesday, Sept. 28—two days before the incident with the baseball bat. Dietrich, Walkingstick’s boyfriend, recounted breaking up a fight between the roommates and hearing Sutherland say as she left the room, “If I can’t have you, no one can.” 

The prosecution argued that Sutherland, jealous of Walkingstick’s relationship, attempted to murder her friend. The defense claimed that while the attack did happen, it only occurred because the argument between the two students triggered a psychotic episode where Sutherland wasn’t aware of what she was doing. Sutherland’s history of mental health issues and trauma, exacerbated by going off her medicine, prevented the defendant from being fully in control of her behavior and able to take responsibility for her actions. According to the defense, Sutherland should be found not guilty based on the M’Naghten rule, which allows the defendant to be found not guilty if it can be proven that they either did not know what they were doing or were not aware that what they were doing was wrong.  

Because this was a learning experience, the students went through the whole trial twice, with the first run-through serving as a practice round. At the end of the second trial, the jury was taken to a separate room in the courthouse to deliberate. After a short discussion, the jury returned to the courtroom and returned their verdict: guilty.  

In the end, the jury felt that the evidence presented by both sides did not prove that the defendant was unaware of her actions at the time of the attack. While the verdict may have been disappointing for LaFunor and the rest of the defense team, LaFunor is still grateful for the opportunity to test his skills in a real courtroom setting.  

“It was a great experience to get hands-on with it, just leaving the classroom and the textbook and going to do it in person,” LaFunor said. “Everyone had different views and different opinions on what was going on, people were like ‘whoa I could never do this, this is too much,’ but I loved it. I want to do it forever.”  

Win or lose, every student in the class gained valuable experience and a deeper appreciation of court procedure and ethics. Going through a full trial in an actual courtroom is an unforgettable experience for many students and successfully reinforces what they learn in the classroom, allowing them to carry that knowledge into their future careers.



By Emily WebbDecember 14, 2023