Ever since 1937, literature enthusiasts were sure George Milton murdered Lennie Small in an act of mercy.
But is there a chance it could have it been self-defense?
At a mock trial in front of a real judge Friday at the Clearwater Courthouse, one set of eighth-grade honor students from Espiritu Santo Catholic School vigorously prosecuted Milton, a character in John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men, while another defended him.
The students prepared for the mock trial for six weeks under the guidance of Judge Dorothy Vaccaro, her husband Serbo Simeoni, a lawyer, and teacher Kathy Preble. Vaccaro and Simeoni have younger children at the school and volunteered to coach the students.
"I thought real learning was going on, more than what (a student) would get from a teacher teaching from a book," Preble said.
As the four-hour trial began Friday morning, first up was Jillian Cline, 14, who gave the opening statement for the prosecution.
"George confessed to this murder and several people heard it," she told the jury. "There was no struggle. (It was) well-thought-out, well-planned and seamlessly implemented."
Defense counsel Thomas O'Connor, 14, immediately started planting doubt, telling the jury that Small was a dangerous criminal who was armed with a stolen Luger and that Milton had no choice but to pop him because he was "in fear for his life."
In the story set during the Great Depression, Milton and Small are friends who find work at a California farm. Small is mentally challenged and relies on Milton to make his way in the world.
Within days of starting at their new jobs, Small, a huge man, unintentionally kills a young woman.
While a group of angry men chases after Small to lynch him, George kills him to protect him from a worse fate.
On Friday, students argued that there could have been other motivations.
They did their best to look like adult lawyers, wearing suits and ties, although some left their shirttails sticking out.
Several witnesses were put on the stand including doctors, a law enforcement officer and characters from the book, including Curley, Carlson and Crooks.
They also had props, such as a green plastic toy gun representing the alleged murder weapon, fake bullets and crime scene photos.
One lawyer put a pathologist on the stand and asked her how she knew it was a gunshot that killed Small.
"The wound was very small," said Jenny Pavlik, 14, who was playing the part of Dr. Kramer.
She demonstrated how the shooting happened using a white ball to represent Small's head and ruled out self defense, suicide or accidental shooting.
"It's extremely difficult to shoot oneself in the back of the head with a gun," Jenny said.
But in a gotcha moment, the defense countered that the doctor did not rule out homicide or self-defense in the police report.
Meanwhile, jurors talked to each other openly but the students were so caught up in their arguments to notice.
Toward the end of the trial, lawyers for Milton surprised the courtroom by putting him on the stand.
"They're going off script," whispered Becky Egger, mother of one the defense attorneys.
The gamble worked.
Jurors deliberated for about 20 minutes before returning with their verdict: Not guilty.
The defense squealed and hugged each other.
A smiling bailiff stood by keeping order.
The prosecution sat stoic.
Jurors explained there was too much reasonable doubt to convict Milton.
The mock trial experience has led Benny Ely, 14, to want to pursue a law career.
"I like the excitement of the courtroom," he said, "and the fun of preparing for a trial."
Eileen Schulte can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.