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Johnson: Students battle it out in mock criminal trial

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Johnson: Students battle it out in mock criminal trial
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

By Reed Johnson / Our Town Contributor

“All rise,” yelled senior Tyler Bren, “before the Honorable Judge Meyerhoeffer and the Honorable Judge Schilt!”

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Tyler Bren was the acting bailiff in a mock criminal trial held by teacher Brian Ham’s law and justice class. Every student in the class participated and everyone applied for one of the various roles in the trial. This is Ham’s second year teaching the class and he considers the mock trial the highlight of the nine-week course.

“The students really like it, and it’s always interesting for me to see how they handle the different parts and how they handle the situation,” Mr. Ham said.

There were various roles in the simulation. Lawyers, judges, witnesses and individual jury members all played a key part in the success of the trial. Ham’s classroom was converted into a courtroom with a table for judges, defense and prosecution lawyers, and the jury box.

The state of North Dakota charged the defendant, senior Taylor Ihmels, with first-degree murder in addition to the North Dakota anti-hazing gang initiate penalty. If convicted, Ihmels would face a life in prison without parole. State’s attorneys were juniors Reed Johnson and Allisha Dworshak.

“It was a huge opportunity to get a feel for what it would be like to be a lawyer,” Dworshak said. “It put me in the actual situation and gave me firsthand experience, which made it so much more real, opposed to just reading about it in a textbook

Defense attorneys were Christian Sims, a senior, and Bailie Trittin, a junior, and they had the goal of proving Ihmels innocent.

In the mock trial, Ihmels was the president of a co-ed fraternity at North Dakota’s Columbus University. She was the last known person to be with the fake victim, Milan Jackson, before she fell to her death from a 26-foot clock tower. At the time of her death, Jackson’s blood-alcohol content was .1 — above the .08 legal limit — and she was known to have been threatened by the defendant. Once there was deemed enough evidence to have a trial, it was underway.

For the first three days, the attorney’s interviewed the witnesses. All of the witnesses had fake names and each gave the lawyers important information. The witnesses had a script that had their side of the story about the case. Information from the packets didn’t come easily though, as they were instructed not to answer unless asked specific questions from the lawyers.

Lawyers of the trial were not on their own, however.

Glen Bruhschwein, an attorney with more than 26 years of experience in both prosecution and defense, assisted the attorneys throughout the trial. Bruhschwein provided the attorneys with valuable information, such as what to expect from judges, and armed them with useful tactics and tips to use during the trial.

“I thought the trial was relevant to today pertaining student-athlete situations,” Bruhschwein said, referring to the various hazing complications affecting sororities and fraternities today.

After three days of interviewing witnesses, the trial was underway. On Dec. 5, the prosecution made their opening statements, followed by the opening statement from the defense. The examination of witnesses soon followed.

Junior Tony Kostelecky played the part of Pat Smith for the trial. His story stated that he was Jackson’s best friend and also provided valuable details about the night of her death. Kostelecky took the stand first and he was a model for the other witnesses.

“It was very fun to play the part,” he said.

Kostelecky described his experience as a little nerve-wracking, but otherwise enjoyed it. He said he got a little angry on the stand, but tried to keep his composure.

The trial proceeded with testimony from the prosecution and defense.

Many witnesses testified, including senior Eden Jackson, senior Lexi Kempenich, senior Blake Vance and junior Hope Jensen. Toward the end of the trial, Ihmels testified.

Ihmels said she enjoyed the experience and said, “It was a lesson to not go to court ever in my life.”

“I got a little angry up there (on the stand), but it was very fun in the end,” Ihmels said.

Two judges were responsible for keeping the peace during the trial and making sure things didn’t get out of hand. Senior Caitland Schilt and senior Dylan Meyerhoeffer were the honorable judges for the trial. The two seniors agreed the trial was very fun.

“It was enjoyable to dictate the flow of the trial,” Meyerhoeffer said.

The trial ended with compelling closing arguments from both sides and then the jury convened to decide a verdict. After hours of deliberating, the jury could not reach a ruling.

The jury did not decide on a verdict on the charge of murder. On the charge of hazing, the jury sentenced Ihmels to eight months in prison. Ihmels was also expelled from campus for the incident.

The question for Mr. Ham’s law and justice class now is whether or not there will be a mistrial.

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