High school students visit Ohio Supreme Court before staging their own mock trial in Athens

Published: August 14, 2023 Author: Staff reports

For two weeks, 20 high school students from across Ohio were immersed in law and justice, with their Summer Law & Trial Institute (STLI) experience culminating in a mock trial in an Athens courtroom.

The high school students lived in Ohio University residence halls, visited the Supreme Court of Ohio in Columbus, and met with dozens of alumni attorneys and judges as they learned about different types of law and prepared for their own roles in the mock trial.

The institute has been educating high school students since 2016 and is run by Larry Hayman, Esq., an Ohio University alumnus who is director of legal engagement and the pre-law program with the Center for Law, Justice and Culture in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Center for Advising, Career and Experiential Learning.

Two undergraduate students, Elena Baker, a senior sociology–criminology major with a Certificate in Law, Justice and Culture, and Emily Green, a junior studying sociology–pre-law and English– literature, culture and writing, served as program assistants. Both students compete on Ohio University’s Mock Trial Team.

 

Students stop for a group photo outside the Supreme Court of Ohio.
Students stop for a group photo outside the Supreme Court of Ohio.

The high school students expressed that they were attracted to the selective summer institute for many different reasons. Max Piccolantonio of Columbus, for example, had plenty of questions about justice that he wanted to explore.

“I wanted to sign up for the STLI program because there are a lot of questions I have about law and learning that I wanted to absorb from people who have the experience and knowledge to provide the information I was looking for," Piccolantonio said.

This year’s program was held in a hybrid format. The first week was spent online, using the Teams platform to learn from speakers across the country. These included San Diego-based criminal defense attorney Alexa Jesser, Athens City Law Director Lisa Elison, and Brian Kelso, a judicial staff attorney to Judge Michael C. Mentel in Columbus.

The second week of the program was held at Ohio University's Athens campus. Students continued to engage with law students, lawyers, and judges throughout the week and even got the opportunity to go to the state’s capital and meet Ohio Supreme Court Justice Melody Stewart.

“I also loved being able to experience a real-life court case and seeing—through a small lens—how the court system works in certain areas and through certain cases,” said Emma Harris from Batavia, Ohio.

While learning from legal professionals every day and learning more about the law, students were also preparing their own mock trial case throughout their time in the program. The hypothetical case, “New Columbia v. Chris Archer,” centered around charges of first-degree murder and criminal hazing and provided students with an experiential learning opportunity where they could practice their skills in a courtroom.

 

Students pose with a portrait of former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.
Students pose with a portrait of former Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.

Meeting a Who's Who of Attorneys in Ohio

Throughout the two weeks, more than 25 speakers talked with the students about their varied career paths. Speakers ranged from current law school students to Ohio Supreme Court justices, and hearing from legal professionals quickly became a part of the program that students eagerly anticipated.

They heard from attorneys in areas such as criminal law, education law, and civil law.

Athens city prosecutors, such as Tracy Meek and Justin Townley gave the students insight into the criminal side of law. They shared stories and gave the students helpful advice for future careers.

Mark Weiker, a managing partner at Abdnour Weiker LLP, met with the group via Teams and answered questions regarding his work in education law.

Students took a bus to Columbus and visited the Supreme Court of Ohio, the Columbus City Attorney’s Office, and the ACLU of Ohio. While at the Supreme Court of Ohio, students got to sit down and have lunch with Justice Stewart and her team, led by Senior Judicial Attorney Sarah Stafford.

A special aspect of the institute is that many of the speakers that the students met with are Ohio University alumni, notably Pierce Reed, director of policy and engagement for the Ohio Innocence Project who earned a B.A. in psychology in 1986 from the College of Arts and Sciences; Caitlyn McDaniel '15, staff attorney at Southeastern Ohio Legal Services who studied war and peace with the Center for International Studies; and Joseph Gibson, Chief Prosecutor at Columbus City Attorney’s Office who earned a B.A. in political science in 2005.

 

Judge Zach Saunders, the County Probate/Juvenile Court Judge in Athens County, presided over the mock trial.
Judge Zach Saunders, the County Probate/Juvenile Court Judge in Athens County, presided over the mock trial.

Mock Trial Makes a Thrilling Conclusion

On the last day of the program, the students showcased their mock trial that they had been working on tirelessly all week. The students were split up into four teams: Prosecution Green, Prosecution White, Defense Green, and Defense White.

The case was tried in the Athens County Municipal Court House in front of Judge Zach Saunders, the County Probate/Juvenile Court Judge in Athens County and also an OHIO alumnus, having earned a B.A.in political science in 2008.

The students’ families joined in on the fun and were able to watch both cases. The mock trial clearly was the best part of the program for many of the students. Many students in the program had never participated in a mock trial before, and the institute allowed them to prepare for and experience one.

James Cox, a student out of Cleveland, said, “As far as events in the program, I really liked the Supreme Court visit, the Athens court visit, and obviously the mock trial.” He also expressed that he felt that he had gotten more confident in his public speaking throughout this process.

The program is tuition-free for selected students through generous donations by Ohio University alumni.