May 3, 2017: What could enable young men who’ve run afoul of the law to see the justice system in a different way, and what could give juveniles who’ve been adjudicated “delinquent” and committed to the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS) an opportunity to understand the law as something other than a means of controlling them? New England Law | Boston student volunteers combined their good idea on how to achieve these difficult goals with their legal skills to launch a promising new program.
During summer 2016, Emily Geraci ’17, Anthony Scarpati ’17, and Dara Yaffe ’17, piloted a mock trial training program for adolescent youth at Boston’s Judge John J. Connelly Youth Center, one of the state’s most restrictive youth facilities. Working with staff members, Shannah Young and Amy Keresztes, they created an intensive, five-day mock trial training course, including factual scenarios, incident reports, 9-1-1 transcripts, diagrams, and instructional texts that taught the basics of evidence, criminal procedure, and trial advocacy. They also found exhibits, props, and costumes that helped transform the secure, lockdown facility into a courtroom.
The three law students had only 90–120 minutes daily to keep students interested in learning to apply technical rules to an intriguing fictional fact pattern, concerning the robbery and assault of a pro basketball player in the TD Garden locker room. Focused lessons kept things moving toward a trial on the fifth day.
Two crucial allies included longtime friend of both the law school and the Connelly facility, Chief Justice Roderick Ireland ’92 (honorary) (retired) of the Supreme Judicial Court, who sat as a judge on the case, and Connelly Youth Center administrator Lynne Allen, who provided access, feedback, and encouragement throughout the process.
Five young men successfully conducted a mock trial before Chief Justice Ireland and a full house of families and center staff. The law students then built upon the initial program, and in February 2017 four more youths showed off their trial chops before Chief Justice Ireland and another full house, with Peter J. Forbes, DYS commissioner, in attendance as well.
“The mock trials allowed the young men to see the legal system from a different perspective,” said Professor David Siegel, director of the Center for Law and Social Responsibility (CLSR). “It taught them what it meant to speak in public and to respectfully make arguments and to see the impact of their efforts in study and practice.”
Chief Justice Ireland saw positive results from the mock trial events. “I have had the good fortune of sitting on both the first and second mock trials at DYS and came away feeling that not only had the young men involved enjoyed and learned from the experience but that their families did as well,” he said. “And it has been a real pleasure to work with the law students from New England Law and the staff of DYS for the mock trials. They were so invested in seeing the young men succeed.”
Geraci’s legal interests include criminal justice reform, and she has interned for public defender offices in Boston and her native New York State. The change in attitude that she saw in Connelly Youth Center students added a new dimension to her legal experience.
“We asked the students for feedback, and they were genuinely excited and had the biggest smiles on their faces,” Geraci said. “They hated school when we talked about it in the beginning, but by the end they were asking about going to law school!”
To celebrate their accomplishment, each student participant received the gift of a new blue suit, courtesy of an anonymous donor, which they wore during the mock trial. At the conclusion, they were told they could keep the suit, shirt, and tie for future use. Chief Justice Ireland felt this added element made a strong impression on the students. “Providing new suits to the young lawyers is such a nice touch,” he said. “It makes them feel special – and they look so good.”
The Massachusetts Future Jurists Program has a bright future as part of a new CLSR project, the Criminal Community Outreach Program. New students will carry on the work next year; Professor Barbara Dortch-Okara, a retired jurist, will provide expert guidance with trial practice techniques; and generous donors will supply the necessary suits and props.
By making a difference under challenging conditions, Geraci, Scarpati, and Yaffe exemplify the CLSR’s goal of empowered law students who pursue their interests in public service through legal advocacy, public service opportunities, and other real-world projects.