A Mt. Sentinel Law 12 class took it upon themselves to retry a simplified version of the controversial Ferguson trial on Wednesday morning, giving the students a hands-on look at how the law operates in Canada.
“This is the ultimate final exam for Law 12,” said teacher-librarian Danny Leeming, who assisted teacher Kris Hryniw in organizing the event. Students took on the roles of defence lawyers, judges, bailiffs and witnesses to create a realistic environment, and followed all the real rules of the courtroom.
“Kris had been working on issues of race and the law, and the distribution of justice by socio-economic class. We thought Ferguson was the perfect issue to get the students engaged,” said Leeming.
Leeming and six former graduates pored through thousands of pages of grand jury documents to create an accurate and simplified version of the case, then tweaked it slightly to apply to Canadian law.
Rather than the case revolving around the shooting death of Michael Brown, the student’s case involves a fictional aboriginal man named Michael John who was killed by RCMP officer Darren Smith in Williams Lake.
“The rest of the case remains the same,” he said, noting that he liaised with the aboriginal education coordinator about the idea.
“We decided that since First Nations men are over-represented in our justice system in much the same way young black men are the States, it would be a great shifting of focus. It was something Kris was working on, and it was ripe with teachable moments,” he said.
In all, 42 students were involved.
“I’ve done this in the past and the whole experience is incredibly real and the kids treat it very seriously. You get the robes on, you get the whole atmosphere. The provided information on both sides makes it like a real trial, so it’s about how they manipulate and work the situation, how they phrase their questions. It’s a very intense exercise in critical thinking and creative thinking,” he said.
And the verdicts can be surprising.
“Last year we did a sleepwalking case, and I would’ve put money down there’s no way Grade 9 or 10 jurors would buy it.”
But he was wrong, which is how the exercise is supposed to work. Depending on how well the students involved play their roles, the mock Ferguson trial could have ended up going either way. In the afternoon, after hours of deliberations, the jury convicted Smith as guilty of manslaughter. Leeming was thrilled with the result.
“This whole experience is incredible for the kids and to highlight the work they did over the last month is huge.”
The trial was held in Courtroom 1 in the Nelson Courthouse Building, and represented over fifty hours of work for each student. The students were in full costume, and the Star attended while student Johnny Johnson was being cross-examined in character as Darren Smith.
“It was pretty cool being on the stand and answering questions. There’s the pressure, the excitement. It makes a big difference being in a real courtroom,” said Johnson.
“It’s good to do something that’s really hands-on.”
Cassidy Verigin, who played a defence lawyer, said it was hard to formulate an opinion about the case.
“There’s just so much evidence involved that it’s hard to have a specific opinion. There’s so many points,” she said.
Patrick Falle agreed.
“I followed the case before as well, and I don’t know who’s side to pick now. After going through all the evidence you see there’s a lot of moral problems the case has. The media really gives it two sides but there’s a whole lot of grey area.”
Aslan Mackay said he assumed Darren Smith was guilty to begin with.
“When I first saw the case I thought the officer was guilty, and now I’ve seen the evidence and I still think he’s guilty. But it was interesting and challenging arguing a case I don’t believe in. It opened my eyes to how hard law is and how much preparation you have to do.”
When asked if they’re interested in pursuing law now that they’ve had this experience, several students said yes.
“Once I mature, maybe,” joked Falle.