U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles's "Justice Scholars" Program Culminates With Mock Trial Before Federal And State Judges
GRAND RAPIDS, MICHIGAN — At the beginning of the 2015–2016 school year, U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles introduced Justice Scholars to a class of seventh-grade students at Gerald R. Ford Academic Center, a Grand Rapids Public School. The new program was developed by U.S. Attorney Miles to expose students to the criminal justice system in a constructive way, while fostering positive connections between youth, law enforcement, and the broader legal community.
Each month over the course of the school year, the class heard from “teachers” who work in the criminal justice system. The interactive presentations took the scholars through the foundations and aims of the criminal justice system, the stages of a criminal case, and possible career paths. Presenters encouraged students to make healthy and constructive decisions during their middle- and high-school years, so they could pursue jobs in the criminal justice system in the future. U.S. Attorney Miles said that the “overwhelming volunteer response by law enforcement and legal partners in the community made the pilot year of Justice Scholars a tremendous success.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Sean Burns, and Chief of Staff for Grand Rapids Public Schools, Larry Johnson, himself a retired police sergeant, taught the students about criminal investigations, interviewing witnesses, and analyzing evidence. Forensic technicians from the Grand Rapids Police Department brought materials and tools so students could get hands-on experience “lifting” fingerprints from objects. Assistant United States Attorneys explained the roles and ethical responsibilities of prosecutors. Along with others from the Federal Public Defender’s Office, Interim Federal Defender Sharon Turek discussed the importance of quality legal representation for criminal defendants. United States Magistrate Judge Ellen S. Carmody talked with the class about the role of the judge in a criminal case, as well as her path to the bench. United States Probation Officer Mathew Erickson discussed the supervision of individuals on probation and federal supervised release, and Grand Rapids Police Department Sergeant Terry Dixon talked with students about some of the difficulties faced by defendants when they return to their communities after prison.
For many students, the end of the school year reflects a winding-down of activities and work. But for Justice Scholars, May is the busiest month: the program culminates with mock criminal trials, before actual judges. Today, after weeks of preparing a hypothetical bank robbery case, the seventh-grade Justice Scholars conducted mock trials in federal and state courtrooms before four judges: Judge Jane M. Beckering, Third District Michigan Court of Appeals; Chief Judge Robert J. Jonker, United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan; United States Magistrate Judge Ray Kent, United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan; and Judge Christopher P. Yates, 17th Circuit Court of Michigan, Kent County. Classroom teacher Emily Thornburg observed that, in preparing for the trials, many students made great strides in the areas of critical thinking and public speaking.
Students from Western Michigan University Cooley Law School and employees of the United States Attorney’s Office acted as civilian witnesses in the trials, while FBI Special Agents “acted” as FBI Special Agents. After working with students for several hours in the classroom over the past several weeks, attorneys from the criminal defense bar, the Federal Defender’s Office, and the United States Attorney’s Office provided advice and support, throughout the trials, to the seventh-grade prosecutors and defenders. Students from the eighthgrade class at Gerald R. Ford Academic Center served as jurors in each courtroom.
Whether the hypothetical defendants were found guilty or not guilty of bank robbery, the real Justice Scholars on both sides of the case deserve congratulations and praise for their hard work and enthusiasm in the program’s inaugural year.