Finding Our Voices: Rosa Parks Mock Trial

Photo Credit: Mark Coplan

You look out into the room and see a sea of strangers looking at you, waiting for you to speak. Your palms start sweating and you feel the rush of adrenaline pumping through your body.

For many of us, this is a situation that we’d like to avoid at all costs. Given that public speaking is something that people of all ages fear, it was incredibly impressive to see 5th graders from Rosa Parks Elementary School present a mock trial to a packed courtroom at the UC Berkeley School of Law on June 1st and 8th. We visited the mock trial, which was partially funded by a Berkeley Public Schools Fund Classroom Grant, on both dates. The students set just the right tone in blazers, ties and dresses as they swiveled around in their chairs waving to their friends and family seated behind them before the trial began.

Photo Credit: Mark Coplan

The room respectfully went quiet when the judge, Honorable David S. Tatel on June 1st and Honorable Charles A. Smiley III on June 8th, took his seat. He explained that we were about to witness a mock criminal case where the prosecution, defense, and witnesses were made up entirely of Rosa Parks students. He then turned to the jury, consisting of volunteer students of various ages, and explained that it’ll be their job to listen to all of the testimonies, deliberate, and reach a unanimous verdict. He then commenced the mock trial that took students 15 weeks to prepare for.

The journey to the mock trials started in January when the students first began attending Mock Trial classes for one hour a week before school started. They met with lawyers Ty Alper, Joy Haviland, Jeremy Isard, and Bidish Sarma who taught and coached them on how the legal system works—everything from opening and closing statements, questioning strategies, and cross-examinations. Students were then given fictitious facts about an imaginary criminal case, and those who were assigned to be lawyers had to write their own questions and those playing witnesses had to create their own responses.

Photo Credit: Mark Coplan

However the process wasn’t always easy or enjoyable. The majority of students described how they were initially uncomfortable speaking in front their class members let alone a room full of strangers. In fact, many students echoed their classmate Matilda’s sentiment when she said that she didn’t feel comfortable until the day of the mock trial. “Before I did [the mock trial] I was nervous, but when I first stepped onto the stand I wasn’t….it just came to you, like ‘I can do this.’”

For that hour and half, it felt like a real trial. The student lawyers were tough, asking straightforward questions during the direct examination of their witnesses but then leading questions during cross examination of the other side’s witnesses. The witnesses didn’t know what the cross examination questions beforehand as the lawyers tried to unveil ulterior motives they may have had for giving their testimonies.

Photo Credit: Mark Coplan

The extensive preparation students went through was apparent as they carefully listened and responded to one another. Kai, who had a role as a witness, said, “I had to really listen to the question and not just say yes because the questions the lawyers were asking made it sound like I was defending [the defendant] when I was against him.” Many described the trial as having felt like it had flown by as they were engrossed in the process and invested in the verdict.

The verdict was that the defendant was not guilty in the first trial and the second trial resulted in a hung jury where they couldn’t come to a unanimous verdict. Afterwards, the students received pizza and pasta, but also something more.

“I feel like kids, we don’t do very important roles except doing school and stuff, and then there I felt like people were actually listening to me.”–Louisa

“Well, I thought it was going to be pretty horrible because I thought I was just going to get stuck or choke. When I actually read what I had to say, nobody was laughing because I thought some people would laugh at me…the experience was actually really cool because you get to say what you had to say and people get to vote.” –Anaya

What the students gained from the discomfort of practicing public speaking week after week and finally presenting in the mock trail, was the lesson that their voices deserve to be heard. We are confident that this is only the beginning for these courageous students.

Photo Credit: Mark Coplan

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