PUBLISHED:February 27, 2014

Students’ mock trial training for Durham middle-schoolers garners recognition

The Duke Pro Bono Project has been recognized by Citizen Schools North Carolina for the involvement of law student volunteers in teaching legal principles to Durham middle-schoolers. Duke’s efforts were honored at Citizen School’s “Expanding Opportunity” breakfast held on Feb. 26 at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham.

Citizen Schools is a national initiative to expand learning opportunities in schools in economically challenged areas.  For the past five years – since Citizen Schools launched operations in Durham – Duke Law students have facilitated a mock trial program involving students from Lowes Grove and Neal Middle Schools. During weekly classes, they teach students about the legal system, the difference between criminal and civil cases, and the trial process, and assign them roles in a mock trial case.

“We help the students understand the facts and then help them draft opening statements, direct and cross examinations, and closing arguments,” said Casteel Borsay ’14, who led the program in the last academic year with classmate Elyse Lyons after participating as a 1L. “The students practice, and often memorize, their parts and then come to the Law School to perform the mock trial for a local judge.” The mock trials, held in Duke’s moot courtroom, are well attended by Citizen Schools’ faculty, administrators, and directors, as well as the participants’ families and friends, and are followed by a reception.

Dean David F. Levi, a formal federal judge, presided over the first Citizen Schools mock trial at Duke.  Since then, District Court Judge Nancy Gordon or retired Orange County District Court Judge Patricia DeVine have held court at Duke. 

Borsay said her involvement with the mock trial program has been one of her favorite extracurricular activities at Duke.  “Watching the students gain confidence throughout the semester is very moving,” she said, recalling one nervous student who wanted to back out of his role as a witness at the last minute.  “We encouraged him, told him he didn’t get dressed up in a suit for nothing, and assured him that we knew he could do it.  He took the stand and did a phenomenal job.  After the trial he gave me a big hug and with a huge smile said, ‘I did it.  I really did it!’  There are countless stories like that.  These students learn to believe in themselves and start realizing that they can accomplish great things if they set their minds to it.”

Second-year students Kathleen Wade and Philip Tarpley are leading the student initiative in the current school year.