Monday, August 29, 2011

LOS ANGELES MIDDLE SCHOOLERS GET A LESSON ON THE LEGAL SYSTEM: A mock trial focusing on cyberbullying is the culmination of a 10-week series on the legal system for Los Angeles middle school students.

By Rick Rojas, Los Angeles Times |


Prosecutor Olimpia Aguillon, 11, left, and defense attorney Michelle Kweon, 12, with Bingham and McCutcheon's Mike McDonough and Kate Conrad. The downtown law firm and the nonprofit Heart of Los Angeles put on the program for the students. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)

August 29, 2011 - Prosecutor Alondra Carrillo stood before a jury with a harrowing tale of social media gone wrong.

It was a case of a jilted eighth-grade boy, devastated when his former best friend not only turned down his invitation to a dance, but also laughed at him. He was humiliated, and he told her she would pay for spurning him. And after the boy took his anger to Facebook, the prosecutor told jurors, the girl paid dearly.

It was a serious and relevant case, even if the prosecutor could hardly see over the lectern in the courtroom and the charges were fake. All of the lawyers in U.S. District Judge S. James Otero's courtroom on this Monday afternoon were middle schoolers.

The small group of students, mostly from the Rampart area, spent 10 weeks learning about the legal system, culminating in the mock trial. It was sponsored by Heart of Los Angeles, a nonprofit offering programs in academics and athletics, and Bingham McCutcheon, a downtown law firm.

Not all of the students began the program wanting to be lawyers. (Other career ambitions included singer, actress, architect and something that involves playing video games.) But many ended up saying they could see themselves in a courtroom one day.

A couple of the boys looked a little stiff in their suits, and one girl followed the words on the page with her finger as she read aloud (and smiled at her mom as she scurried to her seat). Otherwise, the students played their roles quite convincingly — they parsed some words (define "like") and strategically emphasized others ("And it was your decision to create that page, isn't that right?").

The team of prosecutors included Alejandro Rodriguez, Oscar Coello, Olimpia Aguillon, Alberto Castañeda and Alondra. The defense team included Michelle Kweon, Noe Vasquez, Yaahjairi Blas, Israel Mora, Clara Bautista and Ailen Salazar. Witnesses were played by lawyers and staffers from Bingham McCutcheon, and the jury was made up of leaders of area organizations and contributors to Heart of Los Angeles.

They argued the "case" of 14-year-old Steve Miller. He was purported to have created a Facebook page making fun of his would-be date, Michelle Jones, who was so embarrassed that she didn't want to go back to school.

The prosecution offered a compelling case of a young man with a history of making a fuss when he didn't get his way.

But the defense came back with a cunning rebuttal. Mean things may have been written about the victim — "Michelle licks toilet seats," for instance — but they were said by classmates, not Steve.

Throughout the testimony, the young counsel brought some lawyerly flair.

Alejandro, an 11-year-old prosecutor, chastised one witness, a friend of the accused: "I didn't ask you to speculate about Michelle's parents' divorce," he said. "I asked you if Michelle was upset about the Facebook group."

And when Alondra's questioning of Steve turned into a loaded diatribe, Ailen, a defense attorney, objected.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Ailen, 12, interjected. "Is there a question here?"

"I'm getting to that," Alondra retorted.

In their closing arguments, the prosecution pointed out that although the case is fictitious, the emotional consequences of cyberbullying can be quite real.

"No one should have to go through what Michelle went through," said Olimpia, 11, of the prosecution. "No one should ever have to go through cyberbullying."

The jury agreed. They deliberated only a few minutes before returning with their verdict: guilty.

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