When 16-year-old Arabia Roberts put on the black judge’s robe and entered the courtroom, another high school student acting as a law room clerk shouted, “All rise.”
Roberts took the bench. “This court is now called to order,” she said. Her task for the day was to serve as a D.C. Superior Court judge, overhearing a mock trial with other high school students serving as prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, jurors and defendants.
About 100 Washington-area middle and high school students gathered at the courthouse Saturday for the court’s 24th annual Melvin R. Wright Youth Law Fair. The five-hour training session, facilitated by the court’s full-time judges and lawyers from the D.C. Bar, was started to introduce the law to local teens as a possible career path.
Several of the attendees said they hope one day to work in the criminal justice system. Roberts, a sophomore at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Md, said she wants to be a criminal psychologist.
“I like being able to hear the cases,” Roberts said. “But I want to be able to use the law to help people and understand people and their motivation.”
Other students said they just enjoy mock trials, which several of them participate in at their high schools.
Jordan Ray, also a 16-year-old Bishop McNamara High School student, wants to be a medical examiner. “I think this is just fun,” she said. “It forces you to think and frame questions quickly, on your feet.”
The court had various booths through the building to introduce students to such employers as the District’s Public Defender Service and the U.S. attorney’s office.
The students were divided into a half-dozen courtrooms, where professional lawyers and judges worked with them on a case involving the armed robbery of a winter coat. The attorneys asked students to volunteer to be the judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants, witnesses, courtroom clerks and jurors.
In one courtroom, when attorney Ann Wilcox asked who wanted to testify as a D.C. police officer, 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 judge, said she hoped the event would cause young people to be “jazzed” about the legal system and become “committed citizens.”
“We hope that one day you will hold jobs that will make the lives of the people in the District better,” Josey-Herring said.
Judge Kenia Seoane López said another goal was to instruct teens that although they may not be directly involved in a crime, they could still be charged as a co-defendant if they participated in the planning of the crime.
“We see so many juveniles here in the court system, charged with crimes, who think just because they did not hold a weapon or were even at the scene of the crime, they didn’t know they could be charged simply for being part of the planning,” Seoane López said.
Tracy Press, executive director of the youth organization Powerful Beyond Measure, has brought Washington-area teens to the event for the past seven years. Press said one of the first high school students she brought is now in law school. “This is a wonderful opportunity for young people to see the various roles they can assume in the legal profession,” Press said.
Alexa O’Neal, a 15-year-old sophomore at Oakdale High School near Frederick, Md., assumed the role as co-prosecutor in the stolen coat case. She and the defense attorney on the case began sparring over the evidence and witness testimony.
After an hour’s trial, the student jurors deliberated and found the defendants guilty of conspiracy and armed robbery. It was O’Neal’s first win as a prosecutor.
“We get to be a voice for the state, but also for the victims — to help bring justice for the victims,” she said. “Yeah, that is cool.”