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Success is outcome of mock trial

Students from a rough L.A. area just played attorneys. But the experience let them know that they can be real ones someday.

June 30, 2007|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Is Jesse Sunderson guilty of exploding a firecracker in his school locker after he was suspended from his soccer team, or is he a good kid who was framed by other students bent on revenge?

That was the question posed to a jury of civic leaders at a federal courthouse Thursday during a mock trial in which middle school students from the tough Rampart district took on the roles of prosecutors and defense attorneys.

The fictitious trial was the culmination of a 12-week program sponsored by the youth development group Heart of Los Angeles, in which the students learned about the legal system from attorneys at a top Los Angeles law firm.

Many of the students live in an environment that includes gangs, drugs and delinquency and where the criminal justice system is perceived more as an adversary than an advocate.

"Most of the kids we serve live in poverty. And for them just to walk down the street, they face so many obstacles that messes with their self-esteem and self-confidence," said Tony Brown, executive director of the youth group. The program "has made them feel like they are on top of the world and that they can be anything they want to be."

Many of the youngsters began the program withdrawn and unengaged, Brown said. Now they are vociferous and eager to stand their ground. And after experiencing the inner workings of the law, several said they wanted to become lawyers, FBI agents and detectives, as well as doctors, cartoonists and dancers.

"I learned about lawyers, juries, the penal code and what people like the judge do during a trial," said Marilyn Ann Flores, 13, who attends Virgil Middle School and gave the closing argument for the prosecution. She also wants to become a prosecutor in real life. "I want to put the bad guys away," she said.

To prepare for the trial, the students spent 1 1/2 hours each week working with attorneys at the downtown firm Bingham McCutchen, learning the basics of the court system, litigation and interrogating witnesses.

"We tried to introduce them to lots of people at the firm, and not just attorneys, so they could get an idea of the range of jobs that might be available to them," said J. Warren Rissier, a Bingham partner who is also a member of Heart of Los Angeles' board of directors.

The Sunderson case put the students' skills to the test in a trial in a federal courtroom, presided over by U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall, before a gallery of family and friends. Before announcing the verdict, jury foreman Richard Riordan, the former mayor and an attorney with Bingham, said all were impressed by the students' arguments for and against.

But all the students wanted to know was whose side prevailed. An hour beforehand, Peter Meitzenheimer, 11, who attends Berendo Middle School, had delivered the prosecution's opening statement that laid out a curious case.

About 1 p.m. on a January school day, a sudden explosion caused great damage to student lockers and walls at Jefferson School. The assistant principal conducted a search and found a large bag of unexploded firecrackers in locker 633, which belonged to Jesse Sunderson. Jesse was arrested on suspicion of possession of fireworks and damage to property.

It emerged that his grades had been falling and that he had been kicked off the soccer team. Angry at his suspension, he told the coach about two teammates who had been caught drinking beer and successfully argued that they too should be kicked off the team. Jesse said he was in the band room practicing his saxophone at the time of the explosion, but no one could verify that he was there.

Not so fast, said Sharlotte Gonzalez, 14, a Virgil Middle School student arguing for the defense. Jesse was a good student who worked part time delivering papers and had no motive to destroy the school's lockers. In fact, he had overheard his former teammates blaming him for all their problems, and they were the ones who had a motive for framing him.

Points were scored by the prosecution when it was pointed out that Jesse's job gave him the means to buy fireworks. Testimony by a defense witness, however, revealed that one of Jesse's suspended teammates was observed near the scene just before the explosion.

In her closing argument, defense attorney Paulina Smith, an 11-year-old who attends Los Angeles Academy of Arts and Enterprise, said the case was "full of reasonable doubt." The jury agreed, finding Jesse -- portrayed by Bingham attorney Mark K. Arimoto -- not guilty.

The defense table cheered with high fives all around, while the prosecution side looked on glumly.

"You young adults did a fine job, and I can see all of you 10 years from now on [the TV series] 'Law & Order,' " Riordan said.

After the trial, each of the students received a certificate of thanks from the judge with an official court seal. Paulina's mom, Monica Smith, praised the youth program for giving the students a taste of the legal profession.

Paulina, she said, "took on the defense side and won the case. She wants to be a lawyer, and this is excellent exposure for her future dreams."

--

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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