Students portray ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ trial in court


BROWNSTOWN — A trial is held where a man named Tom Robinson is accused of assaulting a woman named Mayella Ewell. The prosecution fails to present hard evidence to prove their accusations, but all 12 jurors stand and declare the defense guilty.

How can this be?

This is the 1930s and Robinson is a Black man accused of harming a white woman and the case was being delivered to a white jury.

This trial comes from the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which Laura Cottrill’s English 9 honors classes of Seymour High School reenacted on April 24 at Jackson Superior Court I at the judicial center in Brownstown. Cottrill’s three sections of honors 9 consists of 79 students that started the novel two weeks prior to the mock trial.

To start the mock trial experience, the court began with a mock voir dire, which is French for “to speak the truth.” For this, both the prosecution, played by Ryan Goss as Horace Gilmer, and the defense, played by Blake Stainbrook as Atticus Finch, ask the jurors questions to figure out who is best suited to be an impartial judge.

“The part [of the mock trial] I most enjoyed was being able to try to become my character after reading the book, learning everything I could about Mr. Gilmer,” Goss said. “At the same time, that was the most challenging part for me.”

Some of the questions asked of the jury during the mock voir dire, depending on which side they were on, were if they have been convicted of a crime, if a violent crime had been done to them and if they believe all men are created equal. Based on their roles, each student answered appropriately.

After the mock voir dire, a total of four jurors were striked and relieved of jury duty while two replaced them.

The mock trial proceeded, lead by multiple narrators that were swapped in intervals. The student actors and Jackson Superior Court I Judge AmyMarie Travis, playing Judge John Taylor, followed their scripts from the “To Kill a Mockingbird” book and their respective binders.

On the prosecution’s side, the Ewells gave their testimonies and claimed Tom Robinson, played by Micah Yee, choked, beat and raped Mayella Ewell, played by Corrina Corcoran, in the Ewell home. On the defense’s side, Robinson gave his testimony. Finch pointed out contradictions such as Robinson’s crippled arm, inconsistencies in Mayella’s testimony and how Bob Ewell, played by Jack Charlton, never got a doctor for his daughter, considering her physical state. Finch also demonstrated Bob was lefthanded, which was aligned with the side of Mayella’s black eye.

Atticus Finch, played by Colin Hartung at this time, explained the defense’s position to the jury, believing it more likely that Bob Ewell beat his own daughter after she kissed Tom Robinson, a Black man. That was seen as unforgivable in the 1930s.

In the fictional, yet realistic trial, Tom Robinson is declared guilty unanimously. For the guilty verdict, Robinson would be sentenced to death.

After the mock trial, Cottrill explained that, in the book, this trial lasted 3 hours. Characters like Atticus Finch believed it would be a fast trial because of the prosecution’s lack of evidence while Jem Finch, Atticus’s son, believed it would be fast because of Robinson’s race.

Cottrill asked her students to get out a small piece of paper and write down their thoughts on the verdict, to get inside the jurors’ minds and figure out how they ended up at their conclusion so slowly.

To prolong this trial, Cottrill pointed out that at least one person must’ve believed in Robinson. Although it didn’t lead to an innocent verdict, that was a small step in the right direction.

“It’s always a favorite learning experience,” Cottrill said. She has been collaborating with Judge AmyMarie Travis for 10 years now to put this on for her students.

When the students returned to school, Cottrill showed her students the movie “Just Mercy,” depicting the true story of Walter McMillian who was falsely accused of the murder of a white woman and the man who took on the case after conviction — lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson got McMillian off death row after proving a witness had lied on the stand.

“When we viewed ‘Just Mercy,’ the students applauded when the charges against the defendant are dropped,” said Cottrill. “I know it’s a powerful learning experience when they react this way. We discussed that we wish Tom’s case ended in the same way.”

The events of “To Kill a Mockingbird” takes place in the 1930s and author Harper Lee published the book in 1960, but the story still has value in 2024.

“There are still people being victimized today as Tom Robinson was then, and it’s very often that it is either based on their social status, wealth or skin color,” said Goss. “Innocent men and women are subjected to this injustice daily.”

Every student came to this mock trial with different thoughts on the topics at hand. The experience expanded many of the students’ understandings.

“Before the trial, I felt as if we were just doing a small read of the chapters. Once the mock trial was over, I grasped a larger understanding at how important the jury is in the court,” said Corcoran. “How one or a couple biased individuals can affect the outcome of someone’s life.”

This year’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” mock trial made these students think critically about the world around them and, as both Stainbrook and Lanam put it, stirs up the need to stand against injustices.

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