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Mock trial provides real insight into legal system

Mock trial provides real insight into legal system

October 18th, 2017 by Bob Watson in News

Eli Neff, 10, raises his hand to answer Judge Jon Beetem's questions Tuesday during a mock trial for students in the Explore, Enrich, Research program at the Cole County Courthouse.

Photo by Shelby Kardell /News Tribune.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was modified at 11:40 a.m. Wednesday, 10-18-2017, to correct the spelling of Deputy Marsey's last name.


Several dozen elementary students and their parents crowded into Cole County's main courtroom Tuesday night to witness a mock trial — then spent about 30 minutes asking a wide-ranging assortment of questions about the trial and legal system.

The students were third- through fifth-graders who are part of the Jefferson City Public Schools' Explore, Enrich, Research program for gifted students.

The mock trial involved a traffic stop on Interstate 70 near Kingdom City, a trooper's suspicions the couple in the car were hiding something, a request for a drug-sniffing dog to help with the investigation (that took at least 15 minutes to arrive at the stopped car), and ultimately, arrests for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia.

Highway Patrol Lt. Mike Halford and Cole County Deputy Todd Marsey were the two witnesses testifying in the trial, answering questions from assistant Cole County prosecutor Todd Smith and defense attorney Chris Hayes, of Jefferson City.

And the first question from a student: "Is this true?"

Yes and no, Circuit Judge Jon Beetem replied.

"This is two cases that I put together," he explained. "The first case — the traffic stop — is Lt. Halford's case, and the dog issue is a case that I tried with Deputy Marsey a couple of years ago. This is very real stuff, not unlike a case we argued a few days ago."

Beetem noted the mock case presented several legal issues, including whether the traffic stop had been valid, how long a wait for the drug dog is appropriate and whether the search that found the drugs was legal.

"This question is not decided by a jury," Beetem said, answering another student's question. "This case is decided by a judge because it was a matter of law."

If the judge agreed with the defendant's motion to suppress the evidence because the search wasn't done legally, "then (prosecutors) would have no evidence of the drugs, and the case probably goes away. If I found the search was OK, then we'd probably go to trial."

No verdict was actually announced from the mock trial.

However, Beetem answered a parent's question by saying: "I probably would have ruled for the state," because the delays were not too long.

Halford told the students: "There's no magic number; there's no bright line that 15 minutes is OK, but 16 minutes is not.

"There's been a number of cases where people have waited 50 minutes to an hour for a canine to arrive — and it's all based on how the officer (determines) reasonable suspicion or the facts that made him suspicious."

Beetem later told the students and their parents that judges don't always like or even personally agree with the rulings they make, but "the law is not 'fair,' in the sense that I like the outcome. The law is 'fair' in the sense that similarly-situated people are treated the same.

"When I look at the facts, I say, 'What is the law?' And then I apply the law to the facts."

He noted lawyers are trained to be objective and not get involved emotionally in their cases.

"Is it fun being a judge?" a student asked.

Beetem replied: "Most days. I would tell you that you learn more about people than you ever cared to know — and a lot of stuff you don't want to know.

"It's like any other job. Parts of it are really, really good and parts of it are not very nice."

Marsey was asked if a trained dog can be traded to another officer.

"It would depend on that particular dog," he said. "Typically though, when a dog is working with a handler, part of that process is the bond it has with the handler.

"So, if something happens to the handler — he gets ill or couldn't work the dog anymore — nine out of 10 times they're going to retire the dog."

There currently are about a half-dozen trained dogs working in Cole County, with the Highway Patrol, sheriff's department, Jefferson City police and Capitol Police, Marsey said.

In Missouri courtrooms today, computer screens have replaced trial file folders with paper documents, and one student asked Beetem if he spent his time during a hearing or trial looking at those screens.

Yes, the judge said, because the documents in a case and many of the other court cases are cited during a trial are available through the computers.

"When I was in law school," Beetem noted, "we had books. Now it's all in the computer."

And in one recent trial, he reported, one of the lawyers was checking a legal reference using his phone.