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Mock trial an insider's view

For a high school junior who suddenly found himself owing more than $1.5-million in damages to a classmate for negligence in a crippling auto accident he had nothing to do with, Josh Robinson took it calmly enough Thursday.

And that doesn't even include attorney's fees.

"Yeah, I lost," the 16-year-old said. "I feel poor now."

Fortunately for Robinson, the jury's decision was just like the trial itself, a mock-up of a real case tried years ago staged for the benefit of Citrus and Crystal River high students as a part of Law Week.

Students from each school were bused to the Citrus County Courthouse on Thursday afternoon, where each divided into jurors, witnesses and spectators and held their own mock trials with real judges and lawyers.

"I think it was very interesting to see how the students handled themselves," said Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas, who oversaw the case decided by Citrus High students.

"They appeared to be very interested in the case, and they obviously had a lot of questions and deliberated about the outcome."

The case both schools heard is real, an auto accident several years ago tried by Dunnellon lawyer Michael Smith that left the plaintiff with severe injuries. That case was settled out of court, so the details remain secret because of a confidentiality agreement.

Students from both schools were selected ahead of time as the plaintiff and defendant and had their testimony scripted, as were the lawyer's questions.

Trying the case in front of the Crystal River High students, Circuit Judge Michael Blackstone explained to the student jurors their role.

"I decide how the law applies in this case," Blackstone said. "You decide the facts of this case."

After hearing testimony, jurors from both high schools seemed to reach the same conclusions, but they differed on how responsible each defendant was.

The Citrus High jurors found the defendant negligent and ordered damages to be paid in excess of $1.6-million. But because the plaintiff was not wearing his seat belt at the time, they found the defendant was only 90-percent negligent, so he only owed 90-percent of the money.

It was a debate that raged inside the jury room, with one student pushing her classmates to find the plaintiff 50-percent negligent.

The jury foreman, Chrissy Susi, said the mood was "debateful," in the jury room.

"Everyone was saying "What if? What if?' " she said. "In the end, the majority won."

Jurors from Crystal River High arrived at nearly the same amount of damages, but found the defendant only 50-percent liable.

"I think they both acted relatively like a real jury," said Smith, the plaintiff's attorney in the Citrus High case.

Robinson must have felt the Citrus High jury going against him during the trial.

"I wanted to try and bribe them," Robinson joked later, as he fished crumpled dollar bills and some change out of his pocket. "How about . . . $2.50?"

Said the plaintiff, 17-year-old Kerry Newman: "I'd like to get the money."