SALT LAKE CITY — The eight jurors may not have been old enough to drive, but they took their jobs seriously as they weighed the evidence and chose to convict one of their classmates in a mock trial over a fictional stolen car.
“You really have to pay attention and like analyze things,” said Denasja Taylor, a student at Nibley Park Middle School.
On Tuesday she sat on the mock jury panel in a juvenile courtroom at Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City and listened intently to the evidence presented.
In honor of the 232nd anniversary of the U.S. Constitution signing, students from Bryant, Nibley Park and Northwest middle schools enacted the roles of defendant, defense council, prosecutors, judge and witnesses.
They learned the burden of proof is no joke as they questioned and cross examined witnesses, posed a number of objections, and discussed the meaning of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Michelle Oldroyd, director of education for the Utah State Bar, told students that the burden of proof is a constitutional right. She said she hopes the experience will “make their civics lessons come a little bit more to life” and that “maybe we catch a few of them and move them to want to be (agents in) the system when they are adults and professionals.”
Students noted that the experience was “nothing like the movies.”
“I never pictured it as being that intense,” said Nibley Park student and mock juror, Zander Zoun.
He said the experience gave him an appreciation for how important a jury’s decision can be, and explained that in a real criminal case, “a lot would be laying on my shoulders.”
Presiding over the case was 3rd District Juvenile Judge Kimberly Hornak, who asked one student to join her on the bench.
During the scripted trial, student prosecutors presented evidence against a young high school student, George Howard, charged with theft by receiving stolen property, a second degree felony, after purchasing a stolen car.
What ultimately swayed the jury’s decision was the defendant’s experience and understanding of vehicles. Explaining their vote, students said this evidenced his knowledge of the fact that the vehicle was stolen.
Beyond teaching about the importance of constitutional rights was a message of warning for the courtroom’s young visitors — you don’t want to end up here in real life.
“I think what’s really important is that they understand that there are consequences (and) that they don’t think ‘Oh I’m a juvenile so it doesn’t matter,’” said Hornak.
The severity of those consequences was made real during a tour of the courtroom’s holding cell.
“Experiencing jail is the kind of punishment that you don’t know,” said Oldroyd.
“How many of you have been grounded?” she asked, noting that “jail is a very different experience than that.”
After the trial, students gathered in the courthouse rotunda to celebrate the occasion with comments from Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant, who spoke about President Abraham Lincoln’s civility toward political opponents, allowing them to develop friendships despite being on the opposite side of issues.
The students also enjoyed music from a Salt Lake Community College choir and a display from the West High School ROTC color guard.