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Taking the Law into Their Own Hands

Upward Bound students argue before “Judge” Elmore’s bench

| From BU Today | By Katie Koch (CAS’09, COM’09)

Plaintiff's attorney Demetria Johnson (from left) cross-examines a witness while Upward Bound project manager (and court clerk) Reggie Jean looks on and Dean of Students (and Judge) Kenneth Elmore takes notes. (Below) Plaintiff witness Derese Telemaque and plaintiff Hung Nguyen. Photos by Katie Koch

A misunderstanding between a citizen and a police officer leads to a heated argument, and the officer makes a questionable split-second decision to arrest.

This confrontation doesn’t end with a beer and reconciliation at the White House. This time, the supposed perp sues the cop. A jury is impaneled to consider three charges: battery, false arrest, and intentional infliction of emotional harm. They hear from witnesses and sharp, impassioned attorneys for defense and prosecution, and then adjourn to consider a verdict.

“He wasn’t falsely arrested, because he was trespassing,” argues one juror of the plaintiff.

“He was just trying to keep the store safe,” a second juror says of the officer.

“But he wasn’t transparent,” another rejoins. “He never read the man his rights or took his statement.”

Looks like it will be a while before this jury of peers reaches a unanimous verdict.

Plaintiff witness Derese Telemaque and plaintiff Hung Nguyen.

This case could have been real, although the judge and setting suggest otherwise: Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore is presiding, and the courtroom is in the Boston University School of Law building. The mock trial is the culminating activity of this year’s Upward Bound at BU summer session.

Now in its 20th year at the University, the federally funded Upward Bound program offers low-income students from Boston public schools a chance to boost their transcripts and sample college life. While a three-year curriculum requires classes and tutoring year-round, six summer weeks spent on campus, living in Warren Towers and taking college-prep courses, are the meat of the program. The goal is to prepare students, often the first in their families planning to attend college, for success after high school. According to program coordinator Reggie Jean (CAS’95, SED’95), 96 percent of students who have completed the Upward Bound at BU curriculum matriculate, and 59 percent graduate from college — a higher rate than their high school counterparts.

For 89 students attending evening activities on the theme of civic involvement, the mock trial has always been the biggest hit, he says. Defense and plaintiff teams practice for five weeks; jurors receive summonses the night before the trial. Other students show up just to watch.

Plaintiff witness Iesha Hall-Ivery testifies.

“The goal, whether they’re in the mock trial and the jury or just observing, is to provide insight into the workings of the judicial system,” says Jean, who has worked for Upward Bound since his undergraduate days.

The mock trial also offers students a chance to hone such life skills as teamwork, public speaking, and the ability to improvise, says Tiffany Marsh (CAS’04, SED’06), an Upward Bound tutor, who volunteered to coach the two teams.

“Everybody wants to be a lawyer at first,” Marsh says. “And they just really want to win.”

The students’ nerves override their bravado by the time the trial begins. As the plaintiff’s attorney, played by Snowden International High School junior Demetria Johnson, develops a line of questioning with a sympathetic witness, “Judge” Elmore steps out of character to goad the defense team. “You have got to start objecting to these questions,” he coaches. “She’s leading the witness like I’ve never seen!”

Some students relish the spotlight. Hung Nguyen takes the part of plaintiff Kevin Brooks, described as an honor student with a temper, who was arrested for trespassing in a convenience store. Milton Lawrence, the off-duty police officer who made the arrest (played by Boston Latin Academy junior Darren Tesis), is the defendant. Nguyen, a junior at Snowden International High School, had wanted to play a lawyer, but says he grew to like his character. “He had this secret,” Nguyen says. “Why would an honor-roll student lie about a cop hurting him?”

By the end of the trial, the lawyers find their grooves. Johnson closes for the plaintiff, railing against the cop for strong-arming and arresting a minor while moonlighting at a convenience store.

“Officer Lawrence’s job is to sweep the floors, and he did so,” she says. “It is not his job to arrest people.”

Defense attorney Shu Ming Huang, a junior at Charlestown High School, makes an appeal to respect authority in her closing. She praises Officer Lawrence’s intervention, given that he believed Brooks was trespassing.

“We need the law,” she says, “and the law is, the store needs to close and the customer needs to be out of the store.”

The jury adjourns, deliberates, and then finds Officer Lawrence guilty of battery and false arrest, but not of intentionally inflicting emotional damage on Brooks. That decision might not satisfy either side, but “Judge” Elmore praises both for their thorough preparation.

“Try to go to a courtroom,” he urges them as the trial concludes. “They’re open to the public, and most of us don’t know what those people really do. It’s pretty glorious stuff, and it’s what makes our country run.”

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