In an attempt to bring some variety to his lesson plan, one Nikiski educator has given his students the opportunity to see firsthand how the U.S. justice system operates.
On Tuesday, Nikiski Middle/High School Seniors in Joe Rizzo’s government class participated in a mock trial at the Kenai Courthouse where they were tasked with finding one of their classmates guilty or not guilty of murder. Students played the roles of the defendant, prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses and the jury, while Kenai lawyer Peter Ehrhardt presided as the judge for the case. Rizzo has set up these mock trials for his students for the past four years, although this one could be the last since Rizzo is retiring at the end of the year.
Kenai Superior Court Judge Jennifer Wells was in the audience during the mock trial and said she was happy to see the younger generation learning how important — and complicated — the courts can be.
“I think it’s great, and I would love if we could do this more,” Wells said during the recess. “I think it’s such a great way to learn just how the court system works, how important it is to be a jury, and how our constitution works. It’s fun to see everyone so engaged and doing such a great job.”
The case itself was a classic whodunit: A restaurant owner, Dee Frost, was found dead in her restaurant’s freezer, and her business partner Izzy Freeman, played by senior Aura Petrick, is being charged with the murder. Petrick’s defense was that her partner owed several hundred thousand dollars to local loan shark Lou Controlto, played by Petie Deveer, and that he was the one who actually killed the victim.
District Attorneys Elora Reichert and Joseph Yourkoski presented their evidence to the jury while questioning witnesses about the murder. Witnesses included the police detective who investigated the incident, an expert on organized crime and the loan shark himself. Meanwhile, defense attorneys America Jeffreys and Bryan McCollum attempted to prove to the jury through cross-examinations that there was too much reasonable doubt surrounding the murder to convict Petrick. During the witness testimonies interesting facts about the case came to light thanks to the questioning of both legal teams: the police officer turned out to have a history of evidence tampering and a connection to the loan shark, for example, and the loan shark was seen at the restaurant on the night of the murder.
Throughout the process, Ehrhardt in his role as judge paused the proceedings occasionally in order to give advice to the attorneys on how to properly question witnesses and when to “object” to questions from the other side.
The student lawyers were hesitant to raise their objections at the beginning of the proceedings, but by the end of the trial the legal teams could barely get a question out before hearing, “Objection! How is this relevant, your honor?” from the other side.
After all the witnesses had been questioned and closing statements had been given, the students spoke about the experience and how it compared to their expectations.
“This was very different than what I thought it was going to be,” Jeffreys said. “I read over the case a lot and tried to make some questions for each person with what we were given for the case, but you never really know what the other side is going to ask or going to say and you just have to counter that the best you can.”
“I thought it was really cool,” Reichert said. “I had no idea about the flow of a courtroom and how it worked until today, so that was interesting.”
“The objections were a really big curveball,” Yourkoski said. “Because you write your questions, and of course you want them to be leading because you want the witness to say what you want, but America here would throw in an objection and then I’d be stumped like, OK, where do I go next?”
Yourkoski said that no amount of reading over the material or watching and rewatching “A Few Good Men” prepared him for the real deal.
“I hope I never have to be tried for murder again,” Petrick said.