Contemporary Law is a freshman history course offered throughout New Haven. As with every class, the students’ personalities run the gamut from withdrawn to garrulous. One project that brings out the reticent and tempers the loquacious is class participation in a mock trial. The purpose of this unit is to expand what I have previously done, with little preparation, into a four to five week project. This particular unit is geared for a class of twenty-five students. This may be modified by reducing the number of jurors and witnesses, doubling roles, or by participating yourself. While teaching the students required course material, “Acting Up In Contemporary Law” attempts, through acting, to get the students actively involved.
During the course of the year, criminal justice is one vast topic that must be touched upon. Most students are familiar with certain aspects of the subject, but have little factual knowledge of it. Movies, television shows, and certain literature have given the students a glimpse of courtroom procedures and criminal law. All too often the information is erroneous—example: immediately upon arresting a suspect the police recite the Miranda Warning. The intent of this unit is to clear up any misconceptions the students may have.
The unit will center around the preparation and enactment of a mock trial. The cast will consist of a judge, a bailiff, a court clerk, a court stenographer, twelve jurors, a prosecuting attorney, a defense attorney, the accused, and six witnesses. The accused will be on trial for murder. The circumstances may be left entirely to the educator. The teacher may choose an actual case, a fictional case taken from literature or the media, or a case fabricated by the educator. Vocabulary and discussion of relevant material related to crime, character roles, courtroom procedures and sentencing will be intertwined into the activities such as lecturing, note taking, critical analysis, Yale law students, and courtroom visits. The intent is to make learning thorough yet enjoyable.
It is not my intent to pass out a script and have the students memorize it. Instead, after factual knowledge has been attained, the aim is to guide the direction of the finalized script by having the students begin by improvising their own dialogue. In order to reach this goal, the unit will contain improvisational exercises aimed at developing the students’ self confidence and performance skills. The chosen exercises are especially selected to hone the students’ observational skills and ability to interact. Each student will be given a biographical statement of their character and their character’s relevance in the scene. The statement will be
in order to enable the student to develop the persona and dialogue of the character. Included in the character sketch that is distributed will be the character’s childhood background, educational background, occupation, interests, lifestyle and age. The student will help develop their character’s type of speech, way of walking, mannerisms, personality and type of dress.
From experience, I have learned that without proper guidance, once a student takes on a role, he/she sometimes goes beyond what is legally correct. By properly directing their original role improvisations through self and group critiques, the student will not only learn more about acting, but will develop a factual knowledge of the subject material that is covered.
I intend to develop the scenes by having the students’ original dialogues audio recorded. The student and the class will then look for technical errors, offer constructive criticism and give positive reinforcement. Once a satisfactory script and performance are achieved, the students will rehearse the completed mock trial. The culmination of the unit will be a video-taping of the mock trial.
“Acting Up In Contemporary Law” is divided into two parts. The first section will contain material related to the factual knowledge needed to enact a mock trial. The second section will contain drama techniques to enable the educator to better develop the students’ acting performance.
Suggested time sequence: Examples will be given in the lesson plans that follow.
Days 1-10: Causes of Crime through Criminal Procedures
Days 11-15: Courtroom Procedures through Case Introduction
Days 16-25: Assignment of Roles through Final Taping
Section I: CRIMINAL PROCEDURE
Students will become familiar with the major causes of crime.
Beginning the unit with this topic, major causes of crime, serves two purposes. First, it is a logical introduction to the material to be covered. Secondly, it will elicit responses from the students. No matter what level the student is on, he/she will definitely have opinions about motivations for criminal acts. This will give the student a sense of involvement and positive reinforcement for his/her knowledge of subject material. The educator may want to place responses on the board and have the students copy them after the exercise is completed. Suggested reasons for criminal acts include, though are not necessarily limited to, the following motives:
Low self esteem
Lack of education
Lack of parental control
No fear of legal punishment
Students will become familiar with major rights of the accused.
The accused has many rights in the American judicial system. Several rights will be stressed in meeting this objective.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentation or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
This amendment contains many important rights, but for the purpose of this unit, only two will be discussed. The Grand Jury will be discussed later.
The first right that is crucial to this project is the right of the accused not to have to say anything that will incriminate him/herself. The further extension of this right to be discussed is the case
Miranda v. Arizona
(students should read Gertz, pp. 42-49, for background.) The decision of the Supreme Court led to what is referred to as the Miranda Warning. A synopsis of the warning is as follows and must be told to the accused before questioning:
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you as evidence. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one. Your attorney may be present during questioning as well as all legal proceedings.”
The second right to be discussed regarding the Fifth Amendment is protection against the taking of private property without compensation or due process of law. Not only had this section been used by slaveholders in response to abolitionists, it has also been used by drug dealers in response to confiscation of property believed to have been attained with illegal drug money. Students usually have a lot to say about this, especially in regard to gold chains. I was fortunate enough to have the New Haven Chief of Police, Mr. Nicholas Pastore, speak to my Contemporary Law classes. This topic was brought up by the students who complained that people who they believed to be non-drug dealing loiterers had their gold chains confiscated by police. This led to a lively discussion of the criminal justice process.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted by witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
The intent of this amendment is to guarantee the accused a “fair trial.”
Speedy and public trial
—No set time was placed in the Constitution which states what constitutes a speedy trial. Ultimately it has been determined that a speedy trial means that the trial must be held as soon as the courts are able to place it on the docket. With the backlog of cases in today’s courts, this could mean years, and still be acceptable as “speedy.”
Right to trial by an impartial jury
—Jurors are usually selected from voter registration lists and tax lists. They are supposed to represent the community. Juries in federal courts require twelve jurors and a unanimous verdict. (In the mock trial, a majority verdict may be substituted.) Some defendants waive the right to trial by jury if they feel the jury verdict will be harsher than a verdict from a judge. Prior to the trial, the jury is selected. The persons who have been summoned for jury duty are brought into the court room and questioned by both sides of the case. This process is called “voir dire” (to see, to talk.) The aim of this questioning is to select jurors who are impartial, that is, not unduly biased toward the accused or the defense. Each side is entitled to dismiss a given amount of juror candidates without giving a reason (peremptory challenge.) Removal for cause allows for the disqualification of any juror candidate who would not be able to be impartial for a variety of reasons, therefore making him/her unfit to serve on a jury.
(venue)—In most cases, the accused is tried in the district that the crime was committed. An exception to this would be if there had been too much pre-trial coverage by the media, and the defense proves that an impartial jury would be impossible to attain. This occurred in Connecticut’s own infamous “Woodchipper” murder case.
Right to know charges against you
—To better understand the history of this right, you may have the students read Gertz, pp. 36-40.
Right to hear/see witnesses against you
to have witnesses on your behalf
—This simply means you have the right to cross examine witnesses.
Right to an attorney
—This originally meant only a person who could afford to hire a lawyer could have one. The poor were not extended this right. To have the students trace the evolution to court-appointed legal counsel, have them read Ratcliffe, et al., pp. 105-107. The culmination of this evolution was Gideon v. Wainwright in which the Supreme Court determined that all felony defendants have the right to counsel regardless of their ability to pay. Therefore, the court must supply the accused with a court appointed attorney if he/she cannot pay for one.
It is also important to cover the concept of presumed innocence. To prepare the students for this topic, have them read Gertz, pp 40-42. This reading traces the evolution of the concept of presumed innocence and compares it with judicial systems in which the accused is considered guilty and must prove his innocence during the trial. Our legal system places the burden proof on the accuser rather than the accused.
To have students become familiar with the different categories of homicide, i.e., an act which results in the death of another human being.
First Degree Murder
—This homicide is pre-meditated. The act is intentional and the desired result is to take the life of another. This is the most heinous of all and elicits the most severe penalties. An example would be if someone plotted and poisoned another human being.
Second Degree Murder
—This act entails intent and desire to kill another, but it is not pre-meditated. Crimes of passion often fall into this category. It is interesting to note that Connecticut does not distinguish between first and second degree murder.
—This act occurs during certain felonies such as armed robbery. Many states classify this as first degree homicide.
—This act is considered an intentional act that was not pre-meditated and was provoked. An example would be a spouse who persistently taunts the mate with stories that would evoke an emotional response.
—This act is an unintentional act that causes the death of another. The act is classified reckless. An example would be if a person prompts another person to participate in a religious ritual involving rattlesnakes and assures the person that the snakes are not harmful.
—This is an act that is unintentional, but is the result of someone’s negligence. Deaths that result from automobile accidents usually fall into this category.
—This act is also unintentional, but does not involve negligence. An example would be a child suddenly darts out from between two parked cars into the path of an oncoming vehicle and is killed. There is no legal liability because the driver could have done nothing to avoid hitting the child.
—This act is an intentional homicide, but is permitted by law. An example of this would be a soldier killing an enemy during a war.
—This term refers to a homicide committed to protect one’s self from the imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm at the hands of another.
—A person cannot be found criminally guilty of homicide if it is determined that he/she was not capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong at the time of the crime, or at any time.
Students will become familiar with types of sentencing.
When a judge sentences the guilty, he/she must take many things into consideration: Is there a mandatory sentence for the crime? What prior criminal record, if any, does the person have? Work and family relationships? There are many sentencing options available. This is another exercise that could involve class questioning. Sentencing options that should be covered and discussed are:
Students will become familiar with legal reasons for imprisonment.
—This is to discourage the offender from committing another crime in the future. This incapacitates the criminal.
—This is to set an example that will keep others from committing the same crime.
—This is aimed at changing the deviant behavior of the criminal in hopes of enabling him/her to live a productive life.
—This is for the good of the community. Its intent is to separate the criminal from society.
—To avenge the act committed by the criminal.
To have students become familiar with Criminal Procedure.
This section will outline the course for the accused from suspicion to sentencing.
: This is a court order that states that the accused must be taken into custody. This must be signed by a judge after sifting through the facts and finding probable cause. No warrant is needed if there is no time to procure one and the police have probable cause. For example: An armed robbery is reported and police arrive to see people wearing ski masks and waving guns running from the scene.
3. Miranda Warning and interrogation
5. First appearance before a judge
7. Grand Jury and Indictment: A group of people who hear the prosecution’s arguments and determine if there is enough evidence to bring the accused to trial.
9. Plea Bargaining: The accused may have the option to plead guilty to a lesser crime. This is a controversial issue. Many wonder if letting a person off with a lesser sentence is worth freeing the courts of too many cases.
To have students become familiar with persons involved in a courtroom procedure.
—The person who is in charge of the court.
—This person represents the State. His/Her job is to prove that the accused is guilty of the crime.
—This person represents the accused. He/She must defend against the prosecution.
—The person accused of the crime.
—This person sees that the jurors are not interrupted during deliberations. He/She also maintains order in the courtroom and delivers messages.
—This person opens the court session and swears in the jury.
—This persons takes the verbatim transcript of the trial.
—The group who will reach a verdict about the guilt or innocence of the accused after listening to the entire trial.
—They tell the jury and the court what they actually heard or saw.
To have the students become familiar with Courtroom Procedure and the format for the mock trial. (Some dialogue is included in this section that is relevant.)
1. Opening of court by Court Clerk (prepared statement)
“The Court of _____ is now open and in session, the Honorable Judge _____ presiding. All persons having business before the Court come to order.”
“The Case of _____ vs. _____ .”
“Is the plaintiff ready?” (Attorney answers: “Yes.”)
Swears in jury—“The jurors will rise, raise your right hands and be sworn in. Do you solemnly swear that you will well and truly try the issues now to be given to you? That you will speak nothing to anyone of the business or matters you have at hand, but among yourselves...nor will you suffer anyone to speak to you about the same, but in court...and when you agree upon any verdict, you will keep it secret until you deliver it up in court? Do you all so swear?” (Jurors respond: “I do.”)
The preceding statements may be modified in the mock trial.
2. Opening statements by Prosecutor aimed at proving the defendant is guilty of the crime.
3. Opening statements by Defense aimed at denying that the prosecution has a valid case against his/her client.
4. Direct Examination of witnesses by Prosecutor/Cross Examination by Defense. Hearsay is not allowed. (We will discuss definitions terminology such as: evidence, objection sustained/overruled, etc.)
5. Direct Examination of witnesses by Defense/Cross Examination by Prosecutor. Accused may or may not take the stand in his/her own behalf.
6. Closing statements by Defense in an attempt to sway the jury into believing that the prosecution has not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
7. Closing statements by Prosecutor in an attempt to prove the Defendant guilty.
8. Jury Instructions—The judge tells the jury what principles of law apply to the case, and then tells them to retire and deliberate on the verdict.
9. Jury deliberation.
10. Verdict—The jury returns to the courtroom after the deliberations. The Court Clerk will ask:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?”
The foreman replies: “We have,” and reveals the verdict: “We, the jury, find for (either the Defendant or the Prosecution.”)
Section II: PERFORMANCE DEVELOPMENT
Students will develop characters for Mock Trial.
Imagination is an untapped resource in many of our youth. Character improvisations develop from the student reaching down into his innermost self and combining their own experiences with observations of other people. The educator is to act as guide for the pupil: he/she is not to impose their own ideas onto the student. Some main elements in shaping characterization are:
1. Physical presence—build, stance (erect, slouched), movement.
2. Clothing and accessories—relevant to role, e.g. hat, gloves, business suit, workclothes, etc.
3. Age—deportment and mannerisms—deafness, naivete.
4. Temperament—personality—hostile, happy, etc.
5. Experience—personality and reactions.
6. General attitude and outlook—optimism, pessimism.
7. Occupation—blue collar/white collar, manner of speech.
8. Educational background—affects thinking, speech.
Before actual roles are assigned, it is advisable to let the student develop the ability to create the role. This can be achieved through the implementation of various exercises. Relevant exercises, adapted and varied from Viola Spolir, would be:
—Assign several students an age, then have them pretend to be sitting at restaurant tables. Without speaking, they are to pretend to be at that age while partaking a meal. The class is to write down the age they believe is being portrayed and why. Dialogue may be added later. Occupation could be substituted for age.
—interplay between pairs of students. Have the students pair off and, in rotation, in front of the class, give each an index card with an emotion printed on it. The students are then to act out the emotion in a conversation with each other. They must be responsive to the improvisation of their partner as well as convey the emotion they were assigned. A variation of this would be having the same format, but the students are to convey the emotion without words—just expressions, movements and gestures may be used.
Students will develop concentration and reaction skills.
All too often, when a performer acts, he/she fails to blend in with the other performers. They may be so engrossed in their own performance that they look blankly into space rather than interplay with the other characters. There are many exercises that can ease the student into a better performance. The ultimate foal is to free the actor from tension so his/her most natural presentation will be achieved. One way to get from A to Z is to have the students become more observant. Spolin suggests several ways to help achieve this goal. Three activities that I feel are essential are: 3 Changes (p. 18), Who Started the Motion? (p. 28), and Three Way Conversation (p. 55).
—Students are paired. One student is the observer, the other is the changer. They face each other and the observer looks at the changer for a few minutes. The observer then either turns, or is isolated from the changer. The changer then alters three things about himself. The observer then has to determine what is different about the changer.
Who Started the Motion?
—Players arrange themselves in a circle. One participant leaves the room while the group chooses a leader to initiate motions that the rest must quickly pick up on and mimic (without blatantly staring at the leader.) The isolated participant returns and stands in the center of the circle. This person is to determine who the leader is.
Three Way Conversation
—Three students are placed side by side. Each end player engages the center in a different conversation. The center player must carry on the two conversations with the two ends. This develops the player’s alertness to incoming data.
Students will develop an improvisational mock trial with teacher guidance.
It is necessary for the educator to maintain a high level of enthusiasm during this process. Indifference, ennui, or detachment will easily be picked up on by the students and affect their work. When and if this occurs, the educator may want to throw in a theater game. (Sources are available in the bibliography.) It is also necessary for the educator to maintain the students’ direction without appearing too dictatorial, sarcastic or too passive.
Here are a few suggestions that should be adhered to for obtaining the best possible performance from the students. Again, don’t expect the student to improvise the character as you would; allow the creative juices to flow. You may make suggestions, but do not require that they be incorporated into the player’s characterization. Do not control their movements too soon, because they will tense up and be more concerned about where and how they are going rather than concentrating on the role. This will make them too stiff. Do not have them memorize the finalized script too soon, let them develop confidence in their role and movements first, so that the dialogue will come more naturally. Do not let the students get out of control, i. e., losing focus by laughing, complaining, etc. Keep them on track. Enhance their improvisations by giving them verbal directions or encouragement. Tape the improvisations so that the students can later critique their work. They are to analyze both the characterizations and the accuracy of the material.
The trial that I plan to use centers around a girl who shoots her husband because he was fooling around with another woman and flaunting the fact that he did so. The controversy will arise over whether the murder was first degree murder, second degree homicide or voluntary manslaughter. (These degrees will be used even though they are not designated as such in Connecticut.) The accused refused to plea bargain because the State would only lower the charge from first to second degree murder. The accused wants a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. The witness roles cannot be set until the gender of the class is made up. Although the students do not have a problem playing the opposite sex, for the first attempt at improvisation, I would like the students to have a better well of experience from which to tap.
Here are a few examples of character sketches that I will pass out so the students can expand the characterizations:
-born to a single parent
-worked way through community college, state university, received law degree at top of class from NYU
-worked at odd jobs before getting degree
-likes jazz, jogging
-married to a race car driver, has one child
-32 years old
-born to wealthy parents
-went to private school, received undergraduate and law degrees from Yale
-has only worked as a lawyer
-likes opera, plays
-married, 3 grown children
-60 years old
-lived in country with parents on farm
-high school graduate
-continues to work on farm
-likes country music, reading, fixing trucks
-25 years old
-lived in city with alcoholic parents
-high school drop-out—hairdressing school
-likes to party
-21 years old
-lived in city with working parents
-worked at odd jobs for pocket money; parents and financial aid paid for school
-likes sports, t.v., puttering around house
-27 years old.
Through past experience I have devised the ensuing lesson plans according to a sequence that works. By following their themes, enough time will be allowed for each stage of development, and a better performance will be achieved.
To have students become familiar with courtroom floor plan.
(figure available in print form)
It is important not to introduce the outlay of the courtroom too soon. Props such as gavel, glasses, handkerchiefs, etc. may be introduced sooner. However, you don’t want to get the student preoccupied with exact locations too soon as it will stifle creativity. Once you feel the time is appropriate, the students will be shown the courtroom floor/placement plan on paper. Later, blocking will take place. The blocking will basically be based on the students’ improvisations, however, elocution and projection must be worked on prior to the final performance.
Courtroom Floor Plan
Lesson Plan—Character Assignments
Students will develop mannerisms of character.
Students will develop improvisational skills.
Students will become at ease performing in front of the class.
Teacher will have had students perform theater games dealing with age, occupation, etc.
Teacher will write on the board main elements in shaping characterization. (See Section II, Objective 1.)
Without telling the student what particular role they be playing, outline on an index card, the childhood background, occupation, interests, lifestyle and age of that particular character.
Each student will then have to develop their character’s type of speech, way of walking, personality, mannerisms, and type of dress.
After the students have had time to think about their character, have each present their character before the class. They are to tell the class about themself as if they were the character. You may have to suggest some topics they can discuss: music preference, neighborhood, favorite t.v. show and why, favorite place and why, biggest pet peeve, etc.
Have the student walk from the door to the front of the class: urge the student to use body gestures that would be appropriate; be sure that the manner of speech corresponds to the data given.
After the exercise has been completed, have the students go home and practice their mannerisms in front of a mirror or others.
Students will begin working on their roles (See Section I, Objective 7.)
Students will begin developing mock trial dialogue.
Students will review criminal law data relevant to their roles.
Teacher will have gone over types of homicide and sentencing (See Section I, Objectives 3,4,5)
The students should be divided into groups:
: Prosecuting attorney and three witnesses
Attorney is to convince jury that the defendant is guilty of First degree homicide.
Give witnesses the following information:
-he/she witnessed previous fights
-heard murder threats in previous fights
-though the husband was the kindest man
-heard previous arguments
-in testimony will make hearsay comments
-romantically involved with defendant’s husband
-said husband wanted to spare wife’s feelings
-kept relationship quiet
Have Group One work on embellishing their dialogue together.
: Defense Attorney, three witnesses and defendant.
Attorney is to convince they jury that the defendant committed involuntary manslaughter.
-worked with defendant
-hearsay in testimony
-was present when husband would taunt defendant with berating statements and infidelities
-witnessed the crime
-romantically involved with husband
-called and taunted defendant
-knew husband also called on phone and taunted defendant
Have Group Two work on and embellish their dialogue.
: Court Clerk, Court Reporter, Bailiff
After the Bailiff and Reporter are given their roles, have them help the Court Clerk learn his/her lines. (See Section I, Objective 8.)
: Judge and jurors
This group must review the types of homicide and what differentiates each from the other.
This group must also review types of sentences and the reasons for each.
: Judge and both attorneys
This group overlaps, but its members must become familiar with types of evidence and statements which are admissible in court.
The teacher is to travel from group to group to assist when needed.
Lesson plan—Mock Trial Development
Students will rehearse mock trial.
Students will respond to constructive criticism.
Students will culminate project with a video-taped performance.
Previous lesson plans
Outline and review of courtroom procedure (See Section I, Objective 8)
From the onset, the rehearsals must be audio-taped. The Court Reporter can do this.
The educator has the option of doing complete runthroughs or may stop the process at sections—example: after the prosecution rests; after the defense rests; after closing statements.
After each presentation, the class is to listen to the recordings and point out any errors that have been committed—example: hearsay slipping through.
Once a satisfactory trial has been attained, each player is to write down his/her dialogue and commit it to memory.
After the dialogue and blocking have been perfected, the educator has the option of isolating the jury and taping their deliberations. This may have to be a timed deliberation with a majority verdict. While this is being done, the other players may be practicing emotional responses to possible verdicts. If the educator decides not to tape the deliberations, proceed to the foreman reading the verdict and recommended sentence.
Before video-taping the Mock Trial, be sure that the students have mastered the art of continuing with the play no matter what happens. This is achieved through rehearsing the students and not allowing them to stop whether they make a mistake, forget lines, fall, etc.
Once the students and teacher are satisfied with the performance, and there has been no jury-tampering—let the video roll!