Justice Studies Program Brings Courtroom to Life
Students Experience Facets of Legal Careers Through Mock Trial
When the jury delivered its “not guilty” verdict, a wave of applause swept through the courtroom across a sea of smartly dressed attorneys. But despite appearances, this was no Trial of the Century – instead it was a mock trial orchestrated by a Berkeley College Justice Studies – Criminal Justice class.
The purpose of the “Special Topics: Mock Trial” class is to encourage critical thinking about law and justice, and along the way to introduce students to career possibilities in legal studies, law enforcement, and the courts. Students played the roles of the prosecution and defense teams, witnesses, the jury, and even the bailiff, with testimony playing out against the backdrop of the Municipal Courtroom in Woodland Park, NJ.
“Students love this event because it challenges them to apply what they have learned in class to the kind of situations they are likely to encounter in a real courtroom,” said Ross London, Ph.D., J.D., a Berkeley College Professor and former Hoboken municipal court judge who created the event. “It enables students to appreciate how the concepts they learned – such as constitutional law and criminal procedure – are used in court to ensure fairness and to promote justice.”
The opportunities for legal studies and justice studies students in the Metropolitan area are vast. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, both New York and New Jersey are near the top of the list for number of employees in legal professions, a sector projected to grow faster than average through 2022. Both states also employ a high number of police and sheriff’s officers, with New Jersey topping the list for annual mean wages paid to these employees.
The mock trial centered around a fictional character accused of manslaughter, aggravated assault, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose. Each side offered opening and closing statements, questioned witnesses, and presented evidence. After deliberation, the jury returned verdicts of not guilty for the manslaughter and aggravated assault charges, but guilty on the charge of weapons possession. Following the conclusion of the trial, Dr. London revealed a video of security camera footage of the “actual event” – proving that the jury was correct in its decision.
“The students got to see the unavoidable uncertainty of a trial,” he said. “No matter what you do as an attorney, the jury has the last word. Whether they will be sympathetic to your cause cannot be known in advance, and so the best you can do is prepare well, present well, and hope for the best.”
Dr. London, who served as judge during the mock trial, has organized similar mock trial projects with Berkeley College students in the Newark Municipal Court and the Superior Court of New Jersey in Essex County. By building on the concepts learned during the mock trial, Berkeley College students have gone on to careers in law enforcement, corrections, and criminology, he said. Organizations that employ Berkeley College students include the Legal Aid Society, the White Plains Police Department, and the Union County Probation Division.
Jessica Rienzi of Garfield, a Berkeley College student who helped organize the proceedings, hopes to pursue a career in the White Collar division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She said preparing for the mock trial gave her an opportunity to explore additional employment possibilities.
“The more students see different career paths, the more they will open their eyes to opportunities,” she said. “Students need to take every chance that comes their way to better their lives.”