High school students who have completed this difficult novel deserve a reward. A mock trial will generate enthusiasm and help them collaborate to make sure they understand the events in the novel and can form and defend their opinions of those events. The mock trial takes at least a week to prepare and perform.
An unresolved question at the novel’s end is whether Sethe did the right thing in trying to kill her children, rather than permitting them to return to slavery. Although she is tired and acquitted after the murder, this trial would not satisfy today’s standards of justice. African-Americans, during this period of history, were not allowed to serve as witnesses or jurors. So the question of her guilt or innocence remains very much alive. The idea of this activity is to give her a present-day trial. Was she “making them safe,” as she claimed, or committing murder, as many would accuse her of doing?
Introducing the Trial
1. I explain the purpose of the trial. It is a criminal trial to determine whether Sethe is guilty or innocent of the murder of her daughter Beloved. In a criminal trial, the burden of proof is on the prosecution. They need to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Sethe is guilty. The defense simply needs to cast reasonable doubt on the idea of her guil by offering another explanation of her actions.
2. I explain the format of the trial. Both sides make an opening and closing statement of their opinions of her guilt or innocence. The meat of the trial, though, is the examination of witnesses. Each side must choose (I suggest between three and five) witnesses (characters from the book) to help build their case of guilt or innocence. Those witnesses must prepare a written affidavit of their knowledge of the events and characters in question. Each witness who is brought to the stand by one side for direct examination can then be cross-examined by the opposing side. At the end of the trial, the jury goes to another room (If there’s time -- if not, take a vote.) to discuss the verdict, and returns once a verdict has been decided.
3. I then assign roles in the trial. Sometimes I write all the roles on the board, and allow them to raise hands and choose roles; other times, I assign roles. The groups then need at least three days to prepare. I give them a list of their tasks with deadlines, then allow them most of the next three days to work independently. I begin each class, though, with a brief lesson on aspects of preparation for the trial. Suggested topics for these mini-lessons are:
* different styles of questions for direct and cross examination
* how to object
* how to prepare and submit evidence
The class is basically divided into two groups: a defense team and a prosecution team. Each team has its own witnesses. The class will also need one judge, a bailiff, and a jury. I strongly recommend that finding an outside jury, composed of students and adults if possible, and one the class will accept as “neutral,” meaning they haven’t read the book and aren’t being graded for their participation. It’s also fun to have outside observers for a class performance.
Each legal team needs to assign members to prepare and perform the following tasks (double-up if there are not enough roles):
Introduces one side’s case, explaining what your side believes and how you will prove it in a speech no longer than 2 minutes.
Direct-Examination (one per witness from your side)
Works with witnesses whose testimony will support your side. Asks open-ended questions to help witnesses tell the story in their own words. Minimum of five questions must be prepared. (Not all questions need to be asked.)
Cross-Examination (one per witness from the opposing side)
Works with witnesses whose testimony has just been given by the opposing side. Looks for reasons to discredit the witness or throw doubt upon their testimony. Asks yes or no questions to prevent the witness from having a chance to tell their story in their own words. Minimum of five questions must be prepared. (Not all questions need to be asked.)
Closing Statement --
Concludes one side’s case, reminding the jury of what your side believes and why you think they should believe you.
Each side should select three to five characters from Beloved whom you would like to call to the stand to tell the facts of the case as the character understands them. If both sides choose to call the same witness, only one person should play that witness, in order to avoid contradictions.
1. Each witness needs to prepare a written affidavit of as much as they know about the case as possible, trying to duplicate the character’s attitude, way of speaking, and knowledge of the case. The affidavit should be made available to both legal teams.
2. Each lawyer needs to prepare their part in writing. (Direct and cross examiners need to read their witnesses’ affidavits and write down their questions.)
3. Each lawyer and witness needs to rehearse their part. (Speech makers need to rehearse for each other; direct examiners rehearse with their witnesses; and cross-examiners rehearse with volunteers posing as the character they will examine.)
4. Judge and Bailiff need to figure out how to set up the room, to write a list of rules for objections (which ones will be accepted), and recruit jury members.
The judge needs to have a firm grip of the order of events (opening statements, direct and cross-examination of witnesses, beginning with the prosecution, closing statements) and how to handle objections and evidence.
The bailiff escorts witnesses to and from their seats, brings evidence to the bench, and evicts rowdy audience members.
When the jury has announced its verdict, there should be time for discussion of the process. Discussion can be open-ended, or focus on the following questions:
* What went particularly well in the trial?
* What could have been improved?
* What did we learn about Sethe’s actions that we didn’t know before?
* How did we feel about the verdict? Was there other information that could have come out in the trial that might have influenced the verdict? How would Toni Morrison feel about the verdict?
* What did we learn from preparing and participating in this trial?