On June 15, 2016, Merle Rausch shot William Jones outside of the Red Apple Tavern. Rausch said it was in self-defense against Jones, who stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and could easily have overpowered the terrified Rausch.
Witnesses said the two men argued earlier in the night, but no one was there to see the fateful moment Rausch fired the gun.
These are the circumstances students in the Basic Trial Advocacy Class at the James E. Rogers College of Law had to work with during their mock trials on Saturday, Nov. 18.
The trials, based on a real murder case, were held downtown at the Pima County Justice Courts and were presided over by actual sitting judges, who had volunteered their time.
“I went to [University of Arizona] undergrad; I went to U of A law school; I did trial practice,” Judge Bruce Macdonald said. “I’m happy to be back acting as a judge.”
Barbara Begrman, a professor and director of advocacy at the College of Law, organized the trials this semester, just as she did during the previous spring semester.
Six trials took place on Saturday, each based on the same court case. The law students, acting as either defense or prosecuting attorney, gave opening and closing statements, presented evidence, examined witnesses and argued their positions.
After closing statements, the jury, made up of volunteers, left the courtroom to deliberate.
Their deliberation was recorded so that the student attorneys could have a chance to review the footage and learn what the jury members found important while making their decision. It was an opportunity the students would not have outside of a learning environment.
While the jury deliberated, the student attorneys remained in the courtroom, where they received feedback from the judge and an experienced attorney who was present during the trial.
The students received constructive criticism on their body language, manner of dress and interactions with witnesses. While the feedback was all very professional, it was not presented in an overly formal manner.
Instead, the mood in the courtroom remained light as the judge and attorney calmed nerves and emphasized the fact that these trials were learning experiences.
“I am really nervous about this experience. I want to do my best job, and hopefully, we can get a not guilty verdict on all the charges,” said Nicolas Hurtado, a law student acting as a defense attorney. “The College of Law did a great job to make this experience as real as possible.”
Among the realities present was the possibility of a hung jury. This is when a jury is unable to come to a unanimous decision on the guilt, or innocence, of the defendant. One experienced attorney expressed his past frustrations in getting a hung jury, an outcome aspiring attorneys should be prepared for.
In some instances, jurors spent a full hour deliberating. The outcomes on Saturday tended to find the defendant not guilty.
Regardless of the outcome, the mock trials provided the student attorneys the opportunity to argue their cases in court. At the same time, it gave them the safety to make mistakes and learn from them. By being presided over by a real judge in a real courtroom, the mock trials created a space that existed in the middle ground between professional experience and a learning environment.
“I think all of that is something that is a unique experience, but doesn’t happen often,” said Melissa Legault, a law student acting as a prosecuting attorney. “It’s been really great, and I think that I’ll remember this as one of the best parts of law school.”
Follow Vanessa Ontiveros on Twitter