In the spring of 2019, Judge Christi Kennedy’s normally somber and serious courtroom was full of questions, laughter, and intrigue. Students from Tyler ISD’s Caldwell Arts Academy filled the jury seats and audience, while their parents, teachers, and local legal professionals looked on at the spectacle.
Dressed as ogres, gingerbread men, knights and other fairy tale characters, the students put Jack Robinson (of Jack and the Beanstalk fame) on trial—his crime: second degree intentional murder. After pleading not guilty, the trial began with the judge reminding the jury that, under the law, a man or woman is innocent until proven guilty. Then the trial proceeded as any trial would, with the prosecution and defense making their opening remarks. Multiple witnesses were called to the stand, including Jack Robinson. During his time on the witness stand, the judge found Jack in contempt of court and charged him $50. After closing remarks, Jack’s fate was in the fairy tale jury’s hands. In the end, the jury was hung, and Jack was free to go.
After the jury’s verdict, local attorney Jason Mazingo and the fairy tale jury discussed whether they thought Jack was guilty or not. Then Mazingo encouraged the students to ask any questions they had about trials, lawyers and the legal process. Hands shot up all over the courtroom, with the young jurors asking questions like, “What should Jack do before his trial?” “How much do lawyers get paid?” and “What happens after a hung jury?”
Mazingo and the fourth-graders covered many topics, ranging from blackmail to Judge Judy. Mazingo also educated the students on terms like “hung jury” and “reasonable doubt,” while providing insight into the difference between a criminal case and a civil case. The kids were full of interest, and the question and answer section continued well into the afternoon, only stopping because the students needed to get back to class.
Today’s kids are curious about what happens before, during, and after a trial. That’s why, each spring, the Tyler Area Association of Legal Professionals orchestrates the Fairy Tale Mock Trial. The event, completely sponsored by the TAALP, originally began in the 1980s as part of their Law Day community-service activities.
Every year, Tyler ISD fourth grades are invited to participate in the event as well as private schools in Smith County. Once the schools have been selected, the trial begins. According to Helen Koch, a paralegal for Brown, Bauman & Smith, P.C., and chairman of the event, “Three different scripts have been used over the last four years: Goldilocks vs. The Three Bears, The Murder of Humpty Dumpty and the State vs. Jack Robinson. Each attorney handles their trial a little differently. The attorneys I’ve worked with let the jury discuss aloud in the courtroom. It is fun to watch the students ‘deliberate’ the case. We have had numerous hung juries, guilty verdicts and not-guilty verdicts. We’ve had a hung jury on first vote and after discussion turned into a unanimous not-guilty verdict.”
Planning a mock trial requires the collaboration and cooperation from several organizations. According to Koch, “TAALP works with the Executive Director of the Smith County Bar Association to contact its members, the Smith County Young Lawyers, students of the Tyler
Junior College Paralegal program and the members of TAALP to request volunteers. The commitment is only about two hours, in the morning or afternoon, during one week of the year. During Law Day, which is held annually, there is also a mock trial competition with local high school students and a tour of the federal courthouse for eighth grade students.”
Koch praised the dedication of the TAALP members to making sure the event has enough volunteers in order to run smoothly and efficiently. “I have been the chairman of the mock trial committee for the past four years. It has become my ‘claim to fame.’ At least everyone knows what I’m e-mailing them about when they see my name between January and May each year. We have a group of volunteers that have stepped up to the plate each year, for which I’m very grateful.”
For local legal professionals, the mock trial provides an opportunity to interact with the community, while also shaping children’s understanding of legal processes, which often seem strange and scary to kids. Lauren Maes-Forbey, a legal assistant at the Gimble Law Firm, has participated in the mock trial for the last two years. According to Maes-Forbey, “Most children have a rudimentary understanding of our legal processes based on what they see on television, which is grossly sensationalized and fictional. The mock trial gives them an opportunity to see the inside of a real courtroom in a fear-free setting, and it helps them understand, at least at a basic level. I enjoy helping children and the adults who attend understand our legal system in a fun way. Children are afraid of what they don’t understand, and I see this when I am at lunch with my husband, who is a Tyler police officer. All it takes is someone who is willing to take the time to alleviate those fears, and I believe that can make all the difference.”
To TAALP members, the children make the event worthwhile and are the reason they continue to volunteer year-after-year. Brandi Turchi, a certified paralegal at Brown, Bauman & Smith, P.C., assists with the TAALP Mock Trials because, “It brings awareness of the court system to school age children, and it’s also like a hands-on career day for the kiddos who take part in the mock trial. The children get to learn about what type of responsibilities attorneys, judges, plaintiffs and defendants have in a courtroom. It’s a wonderful learning experience for children.”
Year-after-year, the event never fails to stimulate and inform kids about the law. As Koch summarizes, “Hopefully this will generate an interest in the legal field for their career choice.”
Please visit taalp.com or smithcountybar.com for more information on how to participate in this event.