High School Students Take Mock Trial Seriously

Hartford Public High School student Jasmine Jara presents the prosecution’s case in a mock trial at UConn School of Law. In the background, from left, are fellow students, all members of the defense team, Frances Reyes, Dalice Gonzalez, Zam Khai, and Nick Simmonds, and a member of the teaching team, Alexandria McFarlane’18 JD.
High school students learning how the legal system functions during UConn Law's Summer Mock Trial Program put the celebrity Kanye West 'on trial' in a fictional case. Here, Hartford Public High School student Jasmine Jara presents the prosecution’s case. In the background, from left, are fellow students, all members of the defense team, Frances Reyes, Dalice Gonzalez, Zam Khai, and Nick Simmonds, and a member of the teaching team, Alexandria McFarlane’18 JD. (Jeanne Leblanc/UConn Photo)

Je’Quana Orr ’18 JD just graduated from UConn School of Law, but the seeds of her legal career were sown 10 years earlier, when she was a rising sophomore at Hartford Public High School.

In the summer of 2008, she participated in the first session of the Summer Law Institute, a four-week program co-sponsored by the law school and Robinson & Cole LLP. The immersive program, intended to introduce Hartford high school students to the practice of law, ended with a mock trial on the UConn Law campus.

“It was definitely one of the first things that drew me to law school,” Orr said. “I didn’t know anything about law going in and it really interested me.” She has accepted a position at Robinson & Cole, having admired the firm since her first contact with it through the Summer Law Institute.

Keisha Palmer ’09 JD, now a partner at Robinson & Cole, co-founded the program in 2008 with Wendy Clarke ’09 JD, when both were in their second year at UConn School of Law. Palmer said she was moved by her experience as a summer intern to work on an informal pipeline to bring Hartford high school students into the legal profession.

“I was walking down the halls and I realized nobody else looked like me,” she said. “And it’s not like these kids aren’t smart or capable, they just hadn’t had a chance. I wanted to give these students an opportunity.”

After a break from 2011 to 2014, the program again became an annual summer event with the backing of the new dean, Timothy Fisher, and renewed support from Robinson & Cole. It was renamed the Summer Mock Trial Program and reconfigured as an intensive two-week course in trial advocacy, culminating in a mock jury trial at UConn Law.

Professor Jennifer Mailly has been supervising the program from its inception in 2008. “This program is an excellent opportunity for high school students,” she said. “It helps us show students what being a lawyer is like, and it encourages them to think critically.”

The program has strengthened the law school’s ties with the city of Hartford in many ways, and through several people. Veronica Lee ’99 JD, now a teacher at Hartford Public High School, is a member of the program’s teaching team. Justin Taylor ’09 JD, who taught on the team in 2008 when he was a second-year law student, went on to teach at Bulkeley High School. In 2014 he was named Hartford’s Teacher of the Year.

Palmer is also still involved. She and some of her colleagues at Robinson & Cole served on the jury of the 2018 mock trial, in which the high school students presented evidence, questioned witnesses, and argued the fictional case State vs. Kanye West.

The students worked with Mailly and a team of UConn students – four from the law school and two from UConn’s School of Education – to prepare for the trial. They met with lawyers from Robinson & Cole and the State’s Attorney’s Office to learn about criminal practice and  procedure and to develop strategies to prosecute and defend their celebrity defendant.

Mailly said she and the UConn students spent hours creating a set of facts that would interest the high school students. Injecting someone like West into the mock trial made the students more engaged from the start, she said. In the fictional case, Kanye West was charged with attempted murder.

The prosecution and defense teams presented their cases before attorney Joseph Heinzmann, who has acted as judge for the program for the past four years, and a jury of six lawyers and teachers. As the jury deliberated, Heinzmann engaged the students in a friendly critique of their strategies, offering praise, tips, and constructive criticism.

The jury deadlocked, providing the students with another lesson in how the legal system functions – and an opportunity to re-try the case in the fall.

Fisher said he sees the program as a means for both Hartford Public High School and UConn School of Law to succeed in their missions as public institutions. “Our outreach to these high school students helps show them a path to leadership roles in a society that desperately needs them to succeed,“ he said.