Local high-school students got a feel for how a courtroom works when the Liberty County Bar on Wednesday hosted a law-day program at the justice center, complete with a mock trial. Liberty County High School students were welcomed to Courtroom A in the morning and Bradwell Institute students visited in the afternoon.
Students were taught, step-by-step, what happens during a civil trial. Court employees — including State Court Judge Leon Braun, Liberty County Clerk of Courts F. Barry Wilkes, attorneys John Pirkle and Jeff Osteen, court reporters and bailiffs — volunteered their time to demonstrate courtroom functions. Sheriff Steve Sikes opened court for the students.
Wilkes and Braun told the youth they should discount television depictions of the judicial process because these dramatic portrayals are not realistic.
“That’s why we brought you in here,” the judge said.
LCHS senior and juror Christian Rivera said he never had been in a courtroom before Wednesday.
“It was very different from what you see on TV,” Rivera said. “It seemed calmer. It was a cool experience.”
Kathy Shutts, a government and economics teacher at LCHS, said students gained more knowledge by spending two hours before an actual judge in the courtroom environment than they would from textbooks and classroom exercises alone.
The morning’s courtroom scenario revolved around a hypothetical traffic accident caused by a distracted driver who was texting. The jury returned a guilty verdict and awarded the plaintiff $6,020 for medical care and ambulance-transport costs. Oriana Hollingsworth and Levi Williams were chosen to play the part of plaintiff and defendant, respectively, and 12 students acted as jury members.
Braun instructed the mock jury not to speak to anyone about their case, just as he would any jury.
During the courtroom presentation, students learned the meanings of legal standards, such as burden of proof.
Burden of proof is defined as, “the requirement that the plaintiff (in a civil lawsuit) show by a ‘weight of evidence’ that all the facts necessary to win a judgment are presented and are probably true. In a criminal trial, the burden of proof required of the prosecutor is to prove the guilt of the accused ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’” according to law.com.
Preponderance of evidence is, “the greater weight of the evidence required in a civil lawsuit for the (jury or judge without a jury) to decide in favor of one side or the other,” according to the website. Pirkle explained that preponderance comes down to the most convincing argument as to what the truth is in a case. Braun said preponderance can “tip the scales” of a jury’s decision one way or another.
Wilkes explained how a jury is selected. He also advised students, should they be chosen for jury duty, to answer the summons and to confirm with the court if jury selection still is scheduled. Sometimes jury selection gets canceled if a plea agreement is reached or a case is settled before going to trial, he said.
The judge added that there may be 140-160 cases on a court calendar, but of that number, only about 10 percent go to trial. Many cases are dismissed or continued, he said.
Wilkes also explained that some court officials are elected to their positions, such as his position as clerk of courts and the sheriff.
“We are constitutional officers,” he said.
Students asked some pointed questions, such as would a judge preside over a case where he or she knows or is related to the parties involved.
Braun replied that a judge would recuse him or herself in this situation and another judge would be assigned to the case. He said he has done that a few times over the course of his career, when one of his former clients from his time as an attorney appeared in court.
The discussion also touched on the appeals process, and what happens when a case is retried.
“We start all over again,” Braun told the students.