Comment on this story
As 16-year-old Arabia Roberts donned the black judge’s robes and entered the courtroom, another high school student acting as the court clerk shouted, “Everybody stand up.”
Roberts took the bench. “This court is now called to order,” she said. Her assignment for the day was to serve as a DC Superior Court judge and overhear a sham trial involving other high school students who served as prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, juries and defendants.
About 100 middle and high school students from the Washington area gathered Saturday at the courthouse for the court’s 24th annual Melvin R. Wright Youth Law Fair. The five-hour training session, led by the court’s full-time judges and attorneys from the DC Bar Association, was launched to introduce local youth to the law as a potential career path.
Several of the participants said they hope to one day work in the criminal justice system. Roberts, a sophomore at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, said she wants to be a criminal psychologist.
“I like listening to the cases,” Roberts said. “But I want to be able to use the law to help people and understand people and their motivations.”
Other students said they simply enjoy mock trials that several of them attend at their high schools.
Jordan Ray, also a 16-year-old student at Bishop McNamara High School, wants to be a coroner. “I think it’s just fun,” she said. “It forces you to think fast and formulate questions.”
The court had several booths in the building to introduce students to employers such as the district’s Public Defender Service and the US Attorney’s Office.
The students were assigned to half a dozen courtrooms where professional attorneys and judges worked with them on a case involving the armed robbery of a winter coat. The attorneys asked the students to register as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, witnesses, clerks, and juries.
When attorney Ann Wilcox asked in a courtroom who would testify as a DC cop, none of the students raised their hands. “Okay, I guess I’ll have to pick someone for this job,” she said, laughing.
Anita M. Josey-Herring, the court’s chief justice, said she hopes the event will result in young people becoming “enthusiastic” about the legal system and becoming “engaged citizens.”
“We hope that one day you will have jobs that will improve the lives of people in the district,” Josey-Herring said.
Judge Kenya Seoane López said another goal is to educate youth that while they may not be directly involved in a crime, they could still be charged as co-defendants if they were involved in planning the crime.
“We see so many youths here in the court system who are accused of crimes and believe that just because they didn’t have a gun or weren’t even at the scene of the crime planning, they didn’t know they could be charged,” Seoane López said.
Tracy Press, executive director of youth organization Powerful Beyond Measure, has been bringing Washington-area youth to the event for the past seven years. Press said one of the first high school students she brought with her is now in law school. “This is a wonderful opportunity for young people to see the different roles they can play in the legal profession,” Press said.
Alexa O’Neal, a 15-year-old sophomore at Oakdale High School near Frederick, Md., took on the role of co-plaintiff in the stolen coat case. She and the case’s defense attorney began to argue about the evidence and testimonies.
After an hour-long court hearing, the student jury deliberated and found the defendants guilty of conspiracy and armed robbery. It was O’Neal’s first victory as a prosecutor.
“We can be a voice for the state, but also for the victims – to help bring justice to the victims,” she said. “Yes that is cool.”