U Law School trains judges in mock trial

Mock trials are now required by state law, a Law School professor said.

Bryce Haugen

The University’s Law School held a mock trial Friday, complete with carefully contrived crimes and manipulative attorneys.

Dakota County District Judge David Knutson presided over the mock trial, which was intended to improve his skills as a judge. It was also an opportunity to display new courtroom technology, said University law professor Steve Simon.

On-the-job training

Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointed Knutson to the court earlier this year. Before his appointment, Knutson spent 12 years in the State Senate and 18 years practicing law in Apple Valley, Minn., but had no experience being a judge. In July, he completed a one-week training session before assuming the bench.

Knutson’s situation is typical for U.S. judges, said Simon, who is also the founder and director of the Judicial Trial Skills Training Program.

“You cannot prepare to be a judge until you are a judge in this country,” he said. “They’re learning how to judge while they’re doing it.”

The lack of training can be problematic, said Hennepin County public defender Ann Remington, who played a public defender in the mock trial.

“It’s really frustrating to try a case and train a judge at the same time,” she said.

Simon said mock trials like the ones conducted monthly in the Law School’s Courtroom 180 are now required by state law.

Former Hennepin County District Judge Frank Knoll, who served for 18 years, said mock trials are a practical way to learn to judge.

“I didn’t even know how to find a courthouse when I got out of law school,” he said. “We didn’t have anything like this back then.”

On Friday, the fake case involved a drunk driving incident that led to a gun arrest. Throughout the trial, Knutson did his best to avoid carefully placed legal booby traps, he said. Attorneys shouted objections, witnesses ignored instructions and, at one point, the clerk – whom Simon played – fumbled around with a fake gun.

Law students played the defendant and star witness, while professional lawyers played fake lawyers.

“You guys are good,” said Knutson, who broke character for a moment.

After appoximately an hour of arguments, the court “recessed” and trial observers and participants critiqued Knutson’s performance. He received praise and constructive criticism.

“It’s just a matter of experience, and you’ll get that,” Remington said.

Knutson said the mock trial was a “tremendous experience.”

“In the (real) courtroom, you just don’t get that much feedback as a judge,” he said.

Remington said the mock trials are extremely important training tools.

“I think Professor Simon’s program allows a judge to make a dozens mistakes with no real harm,” she said, and that’s much better than making mistakes in actual court.

An enhanced courtroom

Courtroom 180 features ELMO, or what Simon describes as “a fancy overhead projector.” The projector can clearly display three-dimensional objects, such as weapons that are part of evidence.

On Friday, with a push of a button, Knutson let mock jurors examine evidence with the projector. Simon said jurors often have to wait until deliberations to see evidence in detail.

He said the projector is “glitzy,” but the courtroom’s other new technology is “constitutionally necessary.”

That technology includes a microphone at the judge’s bench and headphones at the defendant’s table. The jury box has speakers that blast white noise if activated by the judge.

The white noise prevents jurors from hearing sidebar conversations, but Simon said defendants have a constitutional right to listen.

“(This courtroom) is one of the first systems in the country to have this kind of access of defendants to bench conferences,” Simon said. “Big expensive federal courthouses, with all their technology, don’t have that.”

At a cost of approximately $500, he said, the equipment is within the budget of most Minnesota courts.

Pam Kilpela, an administrative supervisor for the Hennepin County District Court, said she came to the mock trial as a part of the county’s effort to explore new technology in the courtroom.

“The images in this courtroom provide greater access to evidence,” she said. “That provides a greater access to justice.”