Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: A mock trial with meaning. Law forum aims to ‘demystify’ legal system for kids

The case against Marsha Nelson was no slam dunk.

Prosecutors argued that Nelson was guilty of taking a motor vehicle without permission, a felony charge.

Nelson’s defense attorney insisted there was “no real evidence” against her, and that she was found by Tacoma police behind the wheel of a 2004 Chevy Corvette, she was simply trying to “do the right thing … and return the car to its rightful owner.”

Taking the stand, Nelson said she’d met a man named Rick at the Walgreens on 38th and Pacific Avenue. When she asked how fast the Corvette he drove would go, he urged her to get in and see for herself. She’d never driven a Corvette, she said, and decided to take him up on the offer. But when Nelson learned the car was stolen, and Rick bailed, all she could think to do was drive the Corvette back to the dealership where it came from.

Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson presided over the trial Friday. When he handed the case off to the larger-than-average jury, their deliberation hinged on whether jurors believed the prosecutor’s office had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether Nelson’s story of the mysterious Rick — recalled by only his first name, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans — was a believable one.

“It looks like we’re going to have a hung jury over here,” attorney Joseph Evans, with the Pierce County public defender’s office, observed at one point. “Rick was a little shady. That’s the thing. Some of the kids just don’t believe Rick exists.”

This was not your average trial. In fact, it was not a real trial at all. With roughly 60 Tacoma Public Schools middle schoolers — from Baker, Gray and Giaudrone — playing the part of the jury, it was all part of the Pierce County Minority Bar Association’s annual Youth In Law Forum.

Now in its 17th year, the yearly forum is designed to help Tacoma Public School kids become familiar with our legal system.

More specifically, it’s intended to give middle school kids — from a district where, during the 2015-2016 school year, more than half identified as a race or ethnicity other than white — a positive interaction with local police officers, judges and attorneys. It’s hoped the interaction just might preclude a less positive one in the future.

“I think the sooner we get them in the legal system, the better. Frankly, there are too many people who don’t interact with the legal system until it’s an adversary to them,” said attorney and Pierce County Minority Bar Association President Mark Brady. “We can bring them as a friend of the court, a friend of the police, and I think that is invaluable at all ages.”

“It’s important right now, with what’s going on in our community, especially with ICE and the presidential stuff, to be out here doing this,” Brady added.

After the mock trial had concluded, Cuthbertson told me he’s been participating in the annual Youth In Law Forum “since the beginning.” Sitting in the back of the courtroom, as the kids’ attention had turned to a demonstration from one of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department’s bomb-sniffing dogs, he told me he’s seen it have real impacts over the years.

“We want kids to really understand how this system works. We want to demystify the role of law enforcement and judges and prosecutors,” Cuthbertson told me. “Some people feel a bit alienated from the justice system because of all the stuff we read about in the news, but in fact this helps bridge the gap and really gives people a better understanding of how this system really works for them.

“I think it does have a good impact. In fact, I know it,” he said. “It really does change young people’s attitudes.”

On Friday, it was too early to tell whether any of the middle schoolers will go on to be police officers, lawyers or judges, or whether their perceptions of our legal system had been influenced in a positive way.

It will take more than one mock trial, one motivational speech, and one demonstration from a bomb-sniffing dog to fully right the complicated and sometimes fractured relationship communities of color have with our legal system.

But, for Brady, it represented a step in the right direction.

“We’re hoping to trigger excitement and enthusiasm and a thirst for knowledge about the law,” Brady said.

“A lot of people think of attorneys as just a bunch of old white guys. We want to show them that’s not how it is.”