Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Lesson in American Justice Gone Astray

One of my favorite components of the curriculum that I teach fourth graders is a social studies strand on the three branches of the federal government. Our class starts with the teacher (me) as the dictator, the “King,” and I actually have a gold crown that I wear. Then the students set up a government. They choose a political party, meet with their party members, conduct a primary election, then attempt to get their party members elected: two Senators and one member of the House of Representatives, a President and his Vice-President, and a judge. Each of these represents the three branches of government.

The legislative branch writes bills, and the President signs the bills into law. Then a law gets invariably broken. I choose which lawbreaker will make the best case, and then take that person to court. The whole lesson cumulates in a field trip to the Metropolitan Courthouse where, due to my connections with a parent of an ex-student, we go on a tour of the courthouse, sit in on a real trial, and then go into a courtroom to meet a real judge, court reporter, and a bailiff. They answer questions and then assist us in conducting our trial.

This year, I was the defendant. I did this because every year it’s the same ol’ same ol’. For example, somebody will chew gum, which is now allowed due to a law written by our legislative branch, but I arrest them anyway because they are chewing too loudly, smacking, or blowing bubbles. Usually they are found guilty.

This year I have a very audacious class, and they encouraged one of our Senators to pass a law stating that the class will have a party once a month for students that do all their homework. I decided that the perfect case would be for me to break that law. I would follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. Our Judge, Judge Gabriella, with the guidance of the real Judge, would find me guilty and I would be forced to make up the parties with a reasonable length of time.

I had a party on February 28, but the party lasted for six minutes. I remember yelling, “Hurry up and drink your soda pop! Faster! Faster!! Now let’s play a game. Instead of ‘Heads up Seven up’ let’s play ‘Heads up Two up’ because we don’t have time for ‘Heads up Seven up.’ Hurry! Hurry! Party’s over!!”

There weren’t too many complaints until the next day. I informed the students that I was going to have March’s party on March 1. “Hurry up! Everybody hurry and get a drink of pop. Hurry! Party’s over!!” The whole thing lasted under five minutes, and they finally complained strongly. I told them the law didn’t say how long the party had to last. I just was following the law. I had to encourage them to arrest and indict me. It is, after all, a learning experience, but with my guidance and encouragement, they arrested me. I was indicted and pleaded innocent during the arraignment. That is when things started to fall apart.

As a defendant, I thought it would be wise to have the brightest mind and the most formidable thinker in the class as my attorney, so I “hired” Melissa. She is a gifted student and yet is a year younger than all the other members of our class due to her pre-Kindergarten language skills. She is small in stature yet a mental giant, and she would be a registered genius if the U.S.A. registered geniuses. The best part was Melissa believed I was innocent because I followed the law as stated, or as I instructed her, “Mr. R. followed the letter of the law.” I taught the students how to behave in a courtroom, how to conduct a trial, and gave some advice to the attorneys. I reminded them that opening and closing statements had to be made, what their case was really about, and instructed the Judge on how to make a decision based only on the evidence provided in the courtroom.

Trial time came, and there we were in a real, fancy, well-appointed courtroom with all the students plus eighteen parents armed with video cameras to capture the darling moment when their precious children would pretend to be lawyers, judges, and witnesses. The judge, attorneys, and the witnesses had working microphones so that everyone in the courtroom could hear them. The real Judge loaned Judge Gabriella her black robe and gavel, and Gabriella was so proud. We were to go through the lesson as I had taught it: opening statements, prosecution witnesses then defense witnesses, cross examinations, rebuttals, closing statements, the whole works. However, I noticed that my attorney, Melissa, was on the edge of her chair from the moment court was convened. What came to mind at the time was that Melissa reminded me of Michael Jordan at the tip-off of the last game in the NBA Championship Series. She was more than ready. She was focused, hungry for victory, and little did I know, but she is a vicious and determined cross-examiner.

Every witness for the prosecution was dragged through the mud by Melissa during her cross-examination. I realized that in front of everyone, Melissa was running all the witnesses through a proverbial wringer in order to extract testimony that would favor me. All those little children, my precious little fourth grade students, were now mere pawns in Melissa’s determination to get me off scot-free. Here is an excerpt from the transcript provided to me by the court reporter. The court reporter did not correct grammatical errors, but I will, adding or leaving nothing out.

“Did you write the law?”
“Did you think about it before you wrote it?”
“You did? Then why didn’t you write the law so it would tell how long a party should last?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you think about putting how long a party should last in the law before you wrote it?”
“I don’t know”
“I don’t think you thought about it. Did you think about it?”
“So you wrote the law without thinking about it?
“I guess.”
“Did Mr. R. have to figure out what the law said because you didn’t think about it?’
“Did you have fun at the party?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“So the party was fun?”
“A little bit.”
“I am finished with the witness, Your Honor.”

I was stunned! I am in charge of the confidence and the psychological protection of my students, and here is my attorney blasting away at everybody like she’s Denny Crane or Alan Shore, two over-the-top defense attorneys on TV’s “Boston Legal.”

After all the witnesses had been reduced to mumblings or long silences by my attorney, the trial finally came to a close. That is when another unexpected thing happened. The real Judge said, “Everyone in the courtroom except the defendant and the attorneys will be on the jury. Please raise your hands if you think the defendant is guilty.” (There was a pause as the hands were tallied.) “Please raise your hand if you think the defendant is not guilty.” (There was another pause as the hands were tallied.)

Then the real Judge whispered to Judge Gabriella, who then announced, “Mr. R. is found guilty.” It was a close vote, but then I was expecting to be found guilty. That is when Melissa lit up. She loudly whispered to me, “This isn’t right. We didn’t want a jury trial. I’m going to complain.” I told Melissa, to just forget about it. I was looking at the clock and it was approaching time to get back on the bus to return to school, and the lesson had turned out as I planned. “Don’t worry about it, Melissa. It’s OK.”
“No it’s not,” she said. “I’m going to complain.” Then she leaned forward in her chair and loudly spoke into her microphone, “Your Honor! Your Honor this isn’t fair. We asked for a Judge to decide whether my client is guilty or not. Somehow a jury decided it. We don’t want that. We want the Judge to decide the case. This isn’t fair! I think this is a mistrial, and I want to appeal the decision. This is wrong!”

Judge Gabriella and the real Judge went into a private conversation. The real Judge said, “Counsel for the defense is correct. Your client asked for a bench decision.” After another private conversation between Judge Gabriella and the real Judge, Judge Gabriella said, “I’ll decide whether Mr. R. is innocent or not. I decide that Mr. R. is innocent.”

I now have to accept the fact that I taught children that the judicial system in America can sometimes misfire and let a guy off scot-free who is guilty as sin. As an adult, I can live with the possibility, but I don’t believe that I should be teaching such skepticism to fourth graders.

The poor kids. I inadvertently stole their party time, time they had worked for and deserved. Actually, it was stolen from them by my incredible attorney, Melissa. I am reminded though, of Mark Twain’s saying, “The two sweetest words in the English language are 'not guilty'.”

A footnote: This week, Alex, the senator who wrote the original bill, rewrote another bill that was signed into law that states that a party will last at least one hour and the law is retroactive to February. Therefore, the party problem has been solved. However, the kids are going to have to live with the injustice of a guilty defendant freed by a flawed judicial system, and then continuing to teach them.


Laura said...

That was great! Melissa will be a famous trial lawyer one day, ensuring that the most vicious of all society will be walking around with the rights they deserve.

But I admit I am extremely curious if your "connection" to the courts is from a positive or negative experience?????

Walter said...

Definitely positive. Her son was in my class; he was elected Judge; his Mom heard about our classroom trial and volunteered a real civil court judge and herself, a court reporter, to come to the class and assist. They invited us the next year to come to the courthouse. Voila! A tradition.

tracy said...

You gotta love Melissa! She will go far, let's just hope you point her in the right direction Walter.