‘Just deciding the facts’

Sixth-graders learn about criminal justice system in mock trial
Mar. 14, 2014 @ 08:57 PM

A murmur swept through the courtroom as the jury filed back in, quickly replaced hushed anticipation.

Judge Henry Banks asked whether the jury had reached a verdict.

“Not guilty,” forewoman Queyaerri Syder said.

Defendant Monroe Efird — played by area attorney Scott Dennis — leapt to his feet, waving his fists in the air.

This was the culmination of a mock trial performed by area legal professionals for sixth-graders in Henderson and Vance County. The endeavor was held in the District Courtroom and heard by Judge Henry Banks.

The trial centered on the fictional crime-ridden town of Starkville, which had problems with high numbers of robberies and theft.

Sheriff Andy Taylor, played by attorney Ben Hunter, was running for re-election and decided to set up a sting to catch the thieves red-handed. He enlisted members of the Citizen’s Patrol to go to the local Walmart late at night and walk slowly back to their cars — purse filled with $800 in marked bills — in hopes of luring the robbers out.

But things didn’t quite go to plan.

Though some men did steal the money, the sheriff’s deputies lost them in the subsequent chase.

Still, a circumstantial case had been made, and Efird was arrested. He maintained his innocence, saying he and his friend Spunky were driving to a University of Georgia football game when Spunky got into a car accident. After getting patched up at the local hospital, the pair continued down to Tuscaloosa to see the Bulldogs play.

As the trial proceeded, district attorney Allison Capps — played by the Vance County assistant DA of the same name — wove a narrative pinning the felonious larceny on Efird, while defense attorney Ernest T. Bass (Michael Waters) poked holes in the state’s case.

The purpose of the 10-year-old program was to teach the sixth-graders about the criminal justice system.

“There is a constitutionally protected process that anybody faced with a crime anywhere has,” Capps said. “No matter anything about a particular person — their race, gender, creed, religion, anything like that — they have the same exact protection from the law in any sort of process. They’re innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof for the state is the same: beyond a reasonable doubt.

“… I think sometimes people, especially younger kids, don’t understand the jury’s not deciding someone’s fate; the judge does that. They’re just deciding the facts: I believe this person, or I don’t believe this person. I think that’s what I hope that they get, that there is a process that really does work.”

That standard of reasonable doubt came into play during the jury’s deliberation; 12 sixth-graders plus one alternate sat in the jury box during the trial, and they had to decide whether they thought Efird committed larceny.

Syder, the forewoman and an Eaton Johnson Middle School student, originally thought he was guilty, but she was persuaded by her fellow jurors to change her mind.

Zachary Jackson, of Crossroads Christian School, led the charge; he didn’t believe Efird, who was independently wealthy through oil money and wouldn’t need to steal money from a woman in a Walmart parking lot, had committed the crime.

Instead, Jackson suspected Spunky, Efird’s friend, had been the driving force behind the incident.

“The reason I thought it was Spunky was because I thought that the man that was the defendant thought they were going to the game,” he said. “But his friend wanted more money, because his friend didn’t have the oil. He wasn’t the one with the money, so he would have been the one that would have done it. I thought that Spunky was the culprit. The defendant was just an accomplice.”

Contact the writer at vshortley@hendersondispatch.com. Follow her on Twitter at @herding_stets.