Teenagers get their day in court

October 26, 2004|GARY MOYERS

At first glance, it looks pretty much like any other courtroom trial.

There's a judge, defendant, bailiff and clerk.

Nine jurors sit in chairs to one side, listening intently to the evidence presented.

Teams of prosecution and defense attorneys make opening statements, grill the defendant and offer evidence summations.

But there is one striking visual that separates this from run-of-the-mill courts - all of the participants, with the exception of the judge, carry the label of "teen" when referred to by age.

Make no mistake, however; Boyle and Mercer counties' Teen Court is a real court, with real sentencing powers.

"These are not necessarily young lawyers, though some of them may elect to become lawyers when they get older," said Family Court Judge Bruce Petrie, who directs the group with help from Kentucky's Administrative Office of the Courts, local attorneys and his staff.


"In many ways, I think this is an exercise in citizenship, where young people learn some of the responsibilities of living in a self-governing society."

Class has 30 members

Thirty members of the fourth class of Teen Court took their oaths of confidentiality at a swearing-in ceremony Monday night, and then conducted a mock trial for the benefit of their parents and other spectators. The jurors' duty? To determine a sentence for 15-year-old John Doe, portrayed by Mason Sisco, after he admitted he "stole" CDs from Wal-Mart.

Holly Hawkins and Morgan Kelly assumed the roles of defense attorneys, while Molly Weston and Chasity Butler were the prosecutors.

Teen Court first came to Kentucky in 1991, as a division of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the support arm for the state's judicial system. Boyle and Mercer counties joined the program in 2001, Petrie said.

"This is a chance for a young person to be heard and judged by his peers," said Petrie. "It is fascinating to watch how they perform under the pressure of a legal proceeding. This is not a fake court, it's not a mock trial; this is very, very real."

"This is the best part of my job," said AOC Teen Court manager Karen Blackwell. "It's an opportunity for me to see young people doing positive things."

Amelia Warsing, in her second year as a volunteer Teen Court participant, said a personal interest in law motivated her.

"It's just an interest of mine, to see how it works and what it's all about," she said. "I came to the first meeting last year, and it was interesting enough to keep me coming back."

Emma Moore said she volunteered "because I'm interested in becoming a lawyer, and Teen Court allows me to see what it would be like."

Sentences decided by teens

During a normal Teen Court hearing, teenagers who have already pleaded or been found guilty, and who agree to the proceedings, will have their sentence decided by the participants. Teens will serve as both prosecutors and defense attorneys, and will attempt to convince the jury what sentence to impose. Sentences may include community service, essays, mandatory counseling and other requirements.

John Doe's sentence Monday included 25 hours of community service, counseling, four sessions of mandatory Teen Court attendance, a 500-word essay on why stealing is wrong and a letter of apology. Had he been an adult, the conviction could have carried a $500 fine and up to 12 months in jail.

"Tonight was an exercise to show parents what their children are doing, because they are not allowed to attend real Teen Court sessions," said Petrie. "Those sessions are, by law, confidential."

They also carry more of an air of urgency, he said.

"There's a seriousness that comes over everybody when it's real," he said. "It's a little different in the mock trials, like tonight. Next time everyone will realize it is being done for real."

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