Reconvening the court: Mock trials return to courthouse

Margaret Hurlbert
Margaret Hurlbert
Margaret Hurlbert works as the Editor of Discover Muscatine Newspaper.

Muscatine Living

MUSCATINE, Iowa–The past five years have proven somewhat of a “trial” for organizers of the annual Muscatine Community School District fourth grade talented and gifted student mock trials. First due to renovations at the Muscatine County Courthouse and then due to COVID-19 field trip restrictions, teachers arranged to have the trials first in Muscatine City Hall council chambers and then within their own schools. With work on the courthouse completed and field trips allowed once again, students and teachers alike welcomed the real-world experience of holding their mock trials in a real courtroom April 28 and 29.

Since January, students in fourth grade talented and gifted classes across the district have prepared for the trials. After studying how the legal system works, getting a basic introduction to the Bill of Rights, and looking at the differences between civil and criminal trials, students then delved into the different roles people in a trial have and started practicing the ones they would have.

Each class prepared for both a civil and criminal trial, cleverly based around favorite nursery rhymes. In the civil trial, students defended either Little Miss Muffet, who broke her lease because her apartment had spiders and she alleged her landlord did nothing about them, or her landlord, who wanted the remainder of the rent from her lease. Other students participated in a criminal trial where the teenage Hansel and Gretel faced charges for stealing candy from a witch’s candy shop and then causing her to get burnt in an ensuing scuffle where she got pushed into the fire. Students also served as jurors in the trial they did not have a role in.

Though students started out nervous, as many had never visited the Muscatine County Courthouse before, Mulberry talented and gifted teacher Dana Carlson said that as they got into their roles, “they were gaining more confidence in themselves.” By the end of the trial, students felt much more at ease with public speaking, as well as with the critical thinking skills it takes to analyze an affidavit, highlight information to support their side’s innocence, and defend against the accusations of the opposing lawyers.

During their time at the courthouse, students got to see for themselves what a real courtroom looks like and how actual trials would proceed in them. They also got to meet with real judges, defense attorneys, and a bailiff, finding out more about what careers in the judicial system really look like.

A challenging and fun opportunity students worked hard for, Carlson believed students would carry the skills they learned into other areas of their lives. Because many students enjoyed the mock trials so much they wanted to do another one, she hopes they will take advantage of competitive mock trial opportunities they may encounter in junior and senior high school and beyond.

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