NEW PORT RICHEY — The defendant stood for the verdict.
"In State of Florida vs. Tom Robinson," the clerk read. "Not guilty."
"Yessss!" exclaimed the defense table.
The prosecutors buried their heads.
"Order in the court," chirped the judge, gleefully banging her gavel.
Bayonet Point Middle School's gifted students just acquitted Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South.
Sound familiar? It's the plot of author Harper Lee's racially charged classic To Kill a Mockingbird. In a mock trial last month at the West Pasco Judicial Center, the students did what Atticus Finch could not.
But what if this time the accusation was not false? A teen "expert" testified that DNA evidence in the case was a "98 percent" match to the fictional defendant.
So did the students right one of the great wrongs in American literature and film?
Or did Robinson really do it this time?
• • •
The mock trial has become an annual rite for teacher Wayne D'Anunzio's gifted language arts class. His seventh- and eighth-graders take on the roles of judge, lawyers and witnesses. The sixth-graders are on jury duty.
"This is what's so marvelous about it," D'Anunzio said. "It's not simply a textbook activity. It's live."
They used to rearrange classroom desks into a courtroom. But this year they got a real one, Courtroom 2A, and real help for the May 23 mock trial.
"Is the prosecution ready?" asked student judge Marissa Brown.
"Yes ma'am," said student prosecutor Joey Sylvester.
"Speak up," commanded the judge.
"Yes ma'am," Sylvester said.
Behind her on the bench sat Circuit Judge Jack Day with an approving smile.
• • •
Sylvester delivered the state's opening remarks.
"The prosecution will prove today that this 37-year-old man raped and beat a 17-year-old and stole her innocence," he told the jury. "This is the type of man Tom Robinson really is."
Student Taylor Russ spoke for the defense.
"What happened was a lonely girl was craving attention from the only person who would give it to her, Tom Robinson," she said. "Now an innocent man is accused of a crime that never happened."
Summer Boone played the alleged victim, Mayella Ewell. In the book, defense attorney Atticus Finch accused Mayella and her abusive father, Bob Ewell, of concocting the rape story after the father caught the daughter making advances toward the accused.
"Is it true that you were attracted to Mr. Robinson?" Russ asked.
"No, that is not true," the girl testified. "I am a white woman. He is a black man."
D'Anunzio believed his students were mature enough to handle these subjects.
"Sometimes we need to talk about tough issues," he said, "even in middle school."
• • •
Lee's book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. There was no CSI on television back then.
"Is there any possibility that the semen could belong to anybody but Tom Robinson?" asked prosecutor Michael Riccardi.
"The DNA results were a 98 percent match," testified student forensic expert Dean Salamilao.
"So it wasn't 100 percent?" asked teen defense attorney Taylor Fourth. "So it might not be him?"
"There's 2 percent chance," Salamilao said.
Now, to be fair to the student lawyers, even real defense attorneys have trouble getting a jury to look past that kind of forensic evidence.
But then the accused, Tom Robinson — played by Jose Mancilla — took the stand. He gave this ingenious defense against the genetic evidence that could implicate his character:
"I never gave you my DNA sample."
• • •
The first vote in the jury room was for acquittal. The sixth-graders parsed Mayella Ewell's statements for inconsistencies.
"The victim said she had woken up sometime around 8 p.m. with the detective and the parents there," said Javier Mancilla, "and the detective said she didn't arrive until 9."
Juror Cole Hazlegrove found the accused quite persuasive: "The defendant, Mr. Robinson, he said that they didn't take tests of his semen and stuff."
It was time for the verdict. Also, the buses had to go soon.
• • •
Two real lawyers advised both sides: prosecutor Eva Vergos and defense attorney Kenneth Foote. That's why the kids said "objection" all the time and had to have three bench conferences in two hours.
Under Vergos' tutelage, the student prosecutors got very technical in their questioning.
So Foote advised the student defense to hammer on the prosecution for never submitting a DNA report as evidence.
But isn't that kind of legal technicality too much to expect for a bunch of middle schoolers?
To which Foote replied: "Eva started it."
• • •
D'Anunzio picked the book To Kill a Mockingbird because he wanted his students to explore prejudices. But he wanted them to learn something different from the trial.
"I think what's especially nice is they got a nice surprise of what it's like to think on their feet," the teacher said. "Some of them were sweating it. That's a great and invaluable lesson, I think."
Judge Day said he had a blast. But the jury's take on the forensic evidence did surprise him.
"I think the verdict was a reflection of the fact that they read the book," the judge said, laughing. "I think they were swayed by facts not in evidence."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.