On July 23, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Judicial Center hosted a mock trial put on by staff of the Community’s legal offices for youth at the Salt River Recreation Department’s Rallo Baptisto Teen Center.
“We were recently approached by the Recreation Department to put together a mock trial to present to the kids, who are ages 11 to 18, to show them what the process was and how things happen in the courtrooms,” said SRPMIC Chief Judge Ryan Andrews. “Myself and Anthony Little, Sr., a court solicitor, reached out to the various [Community] departments to participate, such as the Prosecutor’s Office and the Defense Advocate’s Office, who were both happy to come and participate as well as provide their own witnesses.”
The mock trial focused on a fictionalized account from history: the trial of John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865. In reality, Booth was killed in a manhunt soon after the assassination, but the trial was held as if Booth had survived and had been put on trial for his crime.
“We [tried] the case [by] today’s standards, as if he really went to trial,” Andrews said. Defendant Booth was charged with two counts: being affiliated with a street gang, and murder for the assassination of President Lincoln. “We worked together and worked out a script among the parties,” said Andrews. The prosecutor wanted Booth found guilty, while the defense was pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. Everyone wore costumes of the period and spoke with accents to make it seem like the trial was happening in 1865. Six of the youth were selected to be sworn in as jury members, to listen and determine what was fact and fiction during the trial as each side gave their testimony. The purpose of the mock trial was to expose youth to the processes of the judicial system, educating them about the roles of the judge, defense attorney, prosecuting attorney and the jury.
“Some are getting to that age where they will be selected to be a part of the [Community’s] jury service,” said Andrews. “Hopefully, they had a little fun with it and also learned how jury trials work and what we deal with on a daily basis.”
July 23 was selected as the day for the mock trial because the court calendar was relatively empty that day. All of the legal professionals volunteered their time. “They all worked on the scripts and questions on their own,” said Little.
“We would like to have more of these for the youth,” said Andrews about the mock trial. “We would like to do mock trials for the high school, [using] a topic that happens on the Community, like a drunk-driving trial or other [types of offenses] that affect us here in the Community.”
Little said the court staff enjoyed putting on the mock trial. “It was a very fun process, I think because we got to see each other in a very different light in the courtroom. But [a trial] is always a serious process, and we wanted to show [the youth] what they might see in the future [if they are ever] part of the jury panel,” said Little. “We know the members of the Community always have to be called for jury service, so we want the youth to know what exactly that is. We wanted to be a little serious and also a little fun with some questions, costumes and accents.”
Little said he hopes that this experience also might inspire some of the youth to enter the legal field.
“While the youth were in their discussions, what I did appreciate was that they were all listening to each side of the trial and were getting a lot out of it. I did ask them some questions to provoke their thoughts, and they gave me back very good responses,” said Little. “It was good to see their viewpoints, and I hope they had a great time.”
At the conclusion of the trial, Booth was found not guilty on the charge of being part of a street gang and guilty on the charge of murder for assassinating the president. The judge then reminded everyone that this was indeed a fictional court case, but the charges that Booth faced do exist within the Community and people do get tried on those charges.