Summer program lets Tucson teens learn that 'Courts Are Us'

2013-07-16T00:00:00Z 2013-07-16T10:55:24Z Summer program lets Tucson teens learn that 'Courts Are Us'Patrick McNamara Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A student falls to her death from a university clock tower after a night of excessive drinking.

That's the scenario students in Pima County's "Court Are Us" program faced in a mock trial event Friday.

"I think we did an amazing job," said 15-year old Melina Acevedo, a Tucson High School student who played the role of prosecutor in the mock trial.

She and another student, Liam Etheridge, had the task of proving to a jury of fellow Courts Are Us participants that a fictitious fraternity hazing incident led to the death of the 18-year-old college student.

They argued that a fraternity president, portrayed by Courts Are Us student Nicholas Dominguez, pushed the student from the tower.

Courts Are Us students played the roles of all the participants in a real trial, including judge, defense attorneys, prosecutors, court reporter, bailiff, jurors and defendant. Adding to the realism, the mock trial was held in a courtroom in Pima County Superior Court.

The Courts Are Us program places young people, mostly high school students, in summer jobs in area courts.

Students work helping to file court records and conducting other clerical tasks in Pima County Superior, Pima County Justice, Tucson Municipal and Pima County Juvenile courts.

They apply through Pima County One Stop and have to test into the program. One Stop also tries to place lower-income children in the program when possible.

The students get paid minimum wage and work up to 30 hours per week.

Grant Emmendorfer, a 17-year old Basis High School student, worked at Pima County Superior Court helping with clerical tasks and sorting through thousands of pages of dispositions filed with the court.

Emmendorfer, who was recruited to play the role of judge in the mock trial, said he applied to Courts Are Us because he wanted to earn extra money over the summer but wasn't interested in a typical teen job in the service industry.

"I've enjoyed it," he said. "The disposition sheets have been a really big project."

More than a summer job, though, court officials see the program as an opportunity to teach young people about how justice systems work.

"Our hope is that they get a real picture of the institutions," Pima County Superior Court Judge Charles Harrington said.

Harrington said many people, not just young people, have an inaccurate perception of courts and the criminal justice system based on television shows and films that often focus on injustice or unfair treatment.

"These instances are really rare, but in general it's a fair system," he said.

While Harrington doesn't claim the system works perfectly every time, he said such portrayals can skew young people's views of the courts.

It was a major cultural event that prompted the creation of the Courts Are Us program in the 1990s.

Now-retired Pima County Superior Court Judge Norman Fenton envisioned the program in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

The not-guilty verdict in the trial of four white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King, a black man, sparked six days of riots.

Fenton was concerned that young people in particular would lose faith in the justice system, many without ever experiencing it firsthand.

Harrington said Courts Are Us has been a successful way to demystify courts and create young "ambassadors" for the justice system.

"When the kids actually have contact with the people who work here, it starts to seem like it's not out of reach to them," Harrington said.

Acevedo said her summer job in Pima County Consolidate Justice Court and the mock trial event reaffirmed her desire to go to law school.

"It's definitely something I want to pursue," she said.

As for the mock trial, the verdict that student jurors' handed down provided cause for both sides to celebrate: The defendant was acquitted of first-degree murder but found guilty of criminal hazing.

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@azstarnet.com

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