Courtroom Visits as a Way to Learn Evidence
The Law Teacher, Volume 8, number 1 (Fall 2000), p. 7.
About the Author
Andi Curcio teaches at Georgia State College of Law, P.O. Box 4037, Atlanta, GA 30302-4037; (404) 651-4157; fax (404) 651-2092; email@example.com
How do you teach Evidence to students who have never been in a courtroom, let alone tried a case? This dilemma plagues me every year. Last year, I decided that students needed to see a trial to begin getting a sense of how evidence comes into play in the "real world." So, on the first day of class, I announced that before the semester was over each student had to watch either an entire trial or two and one-half hours of a trial (whichever was shorter). A short paper about their courtroom observation would count for 10 percent of their final grade.
I did not assign particular trials or even tell students how to determine when trials were scheduled because part of the exercise involved the students' learning how to find their way around a courthouse. Any trial in any courthouse would do. Because the paper was not due until a week after classes were over, the students had ample time to find a trial that interested them. The only restriction was that they could not spend the entire two and one-half hours watching only an opening or closing argument. The students also were encouraged to talk to the judge, lawyers, and clerks about what they had observed.
After observing the trial, students were required to discuss, in two to three pages, what they saw. The paper's first paragraph was to contain enough logistics (date and time; courthouse and judge; parties' names) to convince me the students actually attended the trial. The remainder of the paper was to be an analysis of what the students had seen. The students were allowed to write about anything that struck them during their observation. I made the following suggestions as potential topics: evidentiary objections that were made or that the students believed should have been made; the judge's rulings; the jury's reaction when objections were made and argued; the judge's and lawyers' demeanors and how they potentially affected the trial; what made a lawyer they watched seem effective or ineffective; how the jury reacted to the lawyers, witnesses, and judge. Virtually anything that the student thought while observing the trial was fair game.
At the end of the semester, I asked my 60 students to fill out anonymous questionnaires about their courtroom observation experience. The feedback I got surprised me. Despite the time commitment involved, every student thought it was a worthwhile experience and something I should do again next year. They said that sitting in a courtroom and seeing a trial helped them understand how the rules they were learning actually worked. They also learned how important it was to know the rules of evidence well, because, as one student noted, "The evidence came in so fast that by the time I thought about the objection they were already talking about something else.
For some students, the courtroom observation was a confidence builder. They saw practicing lawyers and for the first time thought, "I can do that." For others, it was fascinating to think about strategic issues: Was the lawyer really sleeping during his opponent's examination of a witness, or was he just pretending to be not interested so that the jury would think the testimony was unimportant? One student saw a lawyer get caught making a misstatement. Watching the consequences of that was a lesson in itself. When students talked to the lawyers and judges, they learned about the thinking that went into the judges' rulings and the lawyers' tactical decisions. This, too, was a valuable learning experience.
In sum, forcing the students to leave the law school building and see the law "in practice" was a positive experience. Their papers were generally good and thoughtful, and many students watched more than the required amount of a trial because they found it so interesting. And, of course, there were some students who appreciated simply not having their entire grade be based upon a final exam.
Next year, I will continue the assignment with a slight modification. I will require that the paper be turned in earlier in the semester so that we can incorporate the students' observations into our classroom discussion. In addition, by getting into a courtroom earlier in the semester, students will learn firsthand why they must really know the rules of evidence. Finally, students will learn this valuable lesson at a point in the semester when they still have time left to study the material.