TAMPA — The judge banged his gavel and called for order in the court as jurors filed in with a verdict: "Sorry judge, but we have a hung jury," the foreman said. Fourteen-year-old Stetson Wilson flaunted his victory to prosecutors with his tongue. He had played the role of a young man caught with marijuana under his seat.
"I was like 'guilty, he's guilty,' " said 14-year-old Kaitlin Dietels, who played the role of a state attorney.
The team of eighth-graders from a law program at Franklin Middle School had practiced the case twice a week for the past seven months alongside mentors from the law firm of Holland & Knight. They presented the mock trial last week in the courtrooms of Stetson University's Tampa Law Center before seventh-graders, who will have the opportunity to try a case next year.
While the jury deliberated, attorneys with Holland & Knight answered student questions.
The case was fictional, but based on one that plays out in courts regularly, said Paul McDermott, who chairs a Tampa branch of Holland & Knight's mentoring program, Opening Doors for Children.
Students wanted to know what would happen if a person were wrongfully convicted. That's a very serious matter, McDermott told them. He described how the burden to prove a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt rests on the prosecutors. The standard for conviction is high — jurors must be unanimous, he said. In the students' case, only nine of 12 jurors voted guilty. McDermott explained how the judge could call a mistrial and the state could bring the case again. But the defendant would be free to go home that night.
The district's only middle school program with a theme of law studies and public service started at Franklin five years ago. It is housed in an old brick schoolhouse wedged between concrete block homes and east Tampa's industrial corridor. Almost all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Minorities are the vast majority.
The program aims to introduce kids who may already have had negative exposures to the law to possible careers in the legal profession.
"We have our struggles," teacher Dianne Stokes-Williams said, "but our kids do a great job."
Throughout the year, students see demonstrations by the FBI, a canine unit and a sheriff's bomb disposal team. A forensic class is one of the most popular.
Stokes-Williams said administrators try to give the scripted roles to students who wouldn't otherwise get a chance. For instance, Stetson had been a shy kid at the back of the group at the start of the program.
"Now I'm not so shy," said Stetson, who plans to be a pediatrician. He and about 30 other eighth-graders who acted out the court scene had ad-libbed their lines.
Tension had mounted between Stetson and prosecutor Kaitlin as the case came to a conclusion. They had not known how the jury would rule.
Kaitlin said most people watching had said they thought Stetson was guilty.
Qua'shawn Brown, 15, who played the judge, said it was hard to keep a straight face and to go along with a script that had evolved as lines were added.
"It helped me understand how to be calm and say everything at the right time," Qua'shawn said. He plans to be a police officer.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.