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Learning about the US justice system hands-on

December 13, 2011
The Alpena News

POSEN - It was a typical courtroom scene: the prosecuting attorney stood before the judge and jury, making her final statement. The defendant, she said, is clearly guilty of first degree murder, and the evidence shows it.

Except it was not a courtroom at all. The scene took place Monday morning in the Posen High School library, where Kristin Werth's 11th grade American government class is holding a mock trial to teach students about justice in American courtrooms. The trial, which began last week, involves the imaginary murder of a classmate, and several students were called to the witness stand to testify.

Rather than just read about courtroom procedure in books, the trial is a way to give students a practical look, Werth said.

"We also do mock elections," she said. "It gives them a hands-on opportunity to be a part of American government."

Wayne Karsten's class of seventh-graders observed the trial to give feedback. At one point, Werth asked them if they thought the attorneys were leading the witness.

"Are they putting words into her mouth," she asked; many of the seventh-graders agreed.

The critique provided helped to keep the students participating in the trial on target. At the end of the class, one of Werth's students asked why the coroner wasn't called to the witness stand. Other students asked why certain questions had been left out of the cross-examinations.

After the class, Werth said she was approached by several of her students who wanted to redo their closing statements.

"(Today) we'll go back into court, and they'll try and present the information again," Werth said. "It's very fun to watch them choose to challenge themselves."

For five of Werth's students, the mock trial was also an opportunity to learn about differences between justice in America and their own homelands. Mikaela Nurkki, Linda Hussein, Valerie Mangei, Julie Nielsen and Jonathan Seidel are exchange students, and all five participated directly in the trial.

"The trial was serious, we didn't joke, everybody was quiet and paid attention," Hussein, a 17-year-old senior, said.

Hussein, Mangei and Seidel are from Germany, and all three noticed differences between American and German courts.

Nurkki, who is from Finland, also noticed a difference.

"In Finland, you can't yell, 'Objection,'" she said.

Mangei, who is acting as a juror, said she wished the attorneys had conducted the trial differently.

"They asked a lot of the same questions," she said, adding that she and the rest of the jury still need more information.

Despite this, Mangei said she liked the mock trial better than reading about American courts.

"It's easier to understand when you're actually doing it," she said.

The exchange students encountered some language barriers, Werth said, but were able to work through them.

"It wasn't easy for us, but we tried our best and it was fun," Hussein said.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5688.



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