Hobson junior high students play jurors in mock voir dire

By: 
Charlie Denison
Reporter

Lewistown attorney Breena Lecount asks the “jurors” some hard-hitting questions, trying hard to find any biases or conflicts before the trial.
Photo by Charlie Denison

Hobson teacher Mary Kynett played the role of judge during a mock voir dire Thursday morning. Kynett’s students played the jurors while attorneys Kent Sipe and Breena Lecount determined whether or not they’d be credible. All but two passed the test.
Photo by Charlie Denison

Sometimes there is no better way to learn than to experience it yourself.

When it comes to jury duty, that’s Hobson Junior High teacher Mary Kynett’s philosophy.

For the past 15 years, Kynett has worked with the Fergus County Attorney’s office, District Court clerks and other local attorneys to put together a mock voir dire, giving her students an opportunity to play jurors.

The students were asked by Kynett to come up with characters for the voir dire; staying in character, however, was easier said than done.

As County Attorney Kent Sipe walked through how voir dire (a preliminary examination of a jury) works, students listened, answering most questions with head nods. As he asked questions, they’d sometimes forget to answer as their character instead of as themselves.

Sipe played the role of the prosecutor while Breena LeCount played the role of the defense attorney. Staying in character, both seemed surprised by the jury’s lack of conflict. They didn’t seem to know the defendant or the attorneys. They had no conflicts with work; and, strangest of all, none of them went to a Fergus High School home basketball game in the last four years to see the defendant play.

“Remember you are answering these questions as your character,” Judge Kynett said. “I feel like you are answering as yourselves. You are very timid. The process is more in-depth if you give the attorneys more to work with.”

Public defender Adam Larsen – who played the defendant (Mr. Diaz) – said after the mock voir dire that it’s not unusual for adult jury selections to also be this timid.

 

Getting the details

As students developed their characters (which most did on the spot), Sipe and LeCount went into the details of the case: A Golden Eagle star basketball player was arrested for possession of two pounds of marijuana. He claimed the marijuana belonged to his friend, Ricky Ratt, who would later testify as a witness, trying to pin the crime on the defendant.

Trying to narrow down the best jury for this case was a challenge for Sipe and LeCount, as they had a hard time discovering biases. As more questions were asked, however, LeCount became skeptical over two jurors in particular.

Zo (played by Grace Loose) told the court she works for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Such involvement with law enforcement gave LeCount the impression she’d have biases regarding drug use or drug activity of any kind. Diaz’s defense was that he had no idea what was in the bag in his trunk. He was out at a party with some friends celebrating the end of the year. Diaz had a lot to celebrate; he was all set to play college basketball on a full-ride scholarship.

As Diaz’s defense attorney, LeCount wanted jurors with open minds and ones without a history in busting individuals for drug offenses. She was also looking for jurors who didn’t think or marijuana as threatening. She talked extensively with the jurors about marijuana, asking them their thoughts on whether or not it should be illegal. All agreed it should be illegal unless an individual has a card and uses it for medical purposes.

“What keeps you up at night?” LeCount asked. “Does someone having two pounds of marijuana in their back seat keep you up at night?”

Kuan (played by Carter Derks) said the only thing that keeps him up at night is the threat of nuclear war with North Korea.

There were some suspicious individuals in the jury pool, and LeCount had her eyes on them.

For example, LeCount said it was obvious that Zo knew Amelia (played by Setty Martin). Amelia was a soft-spoken waitress who didn’t reveal much about herself, but she looked over at Zo regularly, often laughing.

“They were giving each other eyes,” LeCount said, “and they appear to be strong personalities, so I am concerned they could sway other members of the jury.”

This was particularly a put-off because the jurors told Sipe they didn’t know each other, so it was a valid concern to remove a juror for appearing to know another juror. According to Sipe, there are endless reasons to remove a juror.

 

“Actually, jurors can be removed for any reason except race,” he said.

Although many jurors moved around in their seats quite a bit Thursday, they were pretty well behaved, Kynett said, and they seemed to enjoy the process. Some really had fun with their characters, such as Taten Erickson, who played a pickle farmer named Jamal.

When he stated, “pickle farmer” as his occupation, all nine jurors chuckled (including Erickson), leading LeCount to pause for hilarity’s sake. LeCount later brought up Jamal’s profession again when asking him if he thought marijuana use by community members would increase pickle sales. This led to even more laughter. Erickson, however, was able to regain his composure and answering the question seriously, saying he didn’t believe marijuana use factored significantly into his pickle sales.

 

Not guilty

According to Judge Kynett, the trial went quickly, as did the jury’s deliberation.

“The students came up with a unanimous verdict of ‘not guilty,’” Kynett said. “They felt Ricky Ratt was not a credible witness and that he was lying during his testimony.”

This is the second case Kynett has done with her eight grade students. Last year, they got to be part of a mock civil case. Students seem to enjoy getting the opportunity to have some fun pretending while gaining knowledge about how the legal system works.

 “It’s a great learning experience for the students,” Kynett said, “and I appreciate all the help by the lawyers in town that ‘voir dire’ the students.”

The attorneys must appreciate it, too. It’s unlikely they’d get to question a pickle farmer named Jamal otherwise.

 

 

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