Some might think the scenario for last week’s mock trial involving students from Gadsden’s three middle schools was far-fetched.
Members of the actual court system who were present for the event in Gadsden City High School’s auditorium begged to differ. They said it absolutely could’ve come from real-life case files.
They also said that given the age group involved, the experience should serve as a warning, not just an introduction to the legal system for those present.
Tasha Blackwell, 14, lives with her mother and two siblings, but spends much time alone because of their work schedules, so she spends a lot of time on her phone. She creates an account on a social media app called STUDY to chat with friends.
She receives a friend request from someone who calls himself Junior, 16, and they begin conversing regularly and exchanging photos. Junior tells her that he lives with an abusive, alcoholic father, and ultimately, he asks Tasha to run away with him. She agrees, gives her address and sneaks out of the house that night and gets in a car that he’s supposed to be in.
Tasha notices that the driver doesn’t look like Junior’s photos, but he reassures her that he’s taking her to Junior. Two hours later, they arrive at motel, the man tells her that Junior was a myth and that he actually is Mike, 27. He ties Tasha up, puts tape over her mouth, destroys her phone and drugs her.
The next day, they drive to another site and Mike tells Tasha that she’s going to help him snare other kids like her. She meets and befriends another girl, Lia, 16, who says she’s been there for four years and tells Tasha that if she cooperates, she’ll get jewelry, money and AirPods.
Tasha uses STUDY to connect with another 14-year-old, Whitney, with Mike paying her $10 a day for doing so, to set up the same scenario she fell victim to. This time, however, the police are watching as Whitney drives off with Mike and Tasha. They follow them to a hotel, then to the headquarters where everyone is arrested, with Tasha facing charges of kidnapping, solicitation and solicitation of unlawful conduct with a child.
At issue in the mock trial: Was Tasha a victim or a criminal? “Prosecutors” seeking to put her away were from Gadsden Middle School. The “defense team” trying to keep her out of prison were from Litchfield Middle School. The “jury” deciding her fate was from Emma Sansom Middle School, which also provided the “court reporter,” “bailiffs” and “judge’s clerks.”
Gadsden Municipal Judge Nikki Tinker presided over the “courtroom,” which was kept in order (pretty much) by bailiffs strolling up and down the auditorium’s aisles.
As in a real trial, jurors were sworn in, each side delivered opening and closing statements and heard testimony from “witnesses,” and Tinker charged the jury before sending it off to deliberations.
The judge heard and ruled on objections from the “attorneys,” and explained concepts like Fifth Amendment protections, perjury, beyond a reasonable doubt and burden of proof to the students.
The result: Tasha was convicted on all three counts (students in the audience were vocal in their approval) and she hauled into custody by “bailiffs.”
And Gadsden Middle walked away with a trophy in the third such mock trial held for the city’s middle school students, plus a $500 check (Tinker specified that half of it had to be spent for an ice cream party).
Before the event, however, the judge reflected on the serious issue that was involved.
“These problems are happening every day in our state, and if we don’t stop and tell the truth and educate them about the importance of matters such as this, they’ll fall prey to predators that are out there,” Tinker said.
“So, this is an opportunity to educate them about the court system and jobs and careers that exist within the court system,” she said, “but also to help them be aware of those devices they’re using every day, and that there are people out there that don’t have good intentions. We just want them to focus on what could happen before it actually happens. We don’t want any victims in our community, and talking to them on their level is the best way to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
That message was reinforced by representatives of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Alabama who were on hand: Will McComb, a prosecutor in the violent crimes division; Tonja Benninger, a victim-witness specialist; and Jasmine Fells, a community outreach specialist.
McComb told the students that while this particular incident was imaginary, identical ones have occurred “way more than once” in real life.
“There are individuals online who will try to get to know you and want to be your best friend,” he said. “All the while, they’ll be trying to get you to become safe and confident with them, and at some point they will want to meet.”
He advised students that “everyone you meet online is not who they say it is” and not to trust anyone they don’t actually know, and to never send anyone personal information or photos “that you would not want your parents to see” online.
McComb referenced the “stranger danger” scenario of the past, where predators would drive around in vans trying to lure children with candy. He said social media apps are the new “vans” and that attention, which so many kids crave, is the new “candy.”
Before the mock trial, he noted that such events introduce students to the legal world, to advocacy and to taking stances. They also help them improve their debate and public speaking skills.
Still, he returned to the main message. “It’s very important for these kids to hear and learn this stuff,” he said, “because unfortunately, they’re the members of our victim pool for these online predators. The more wisdom and knowledge they can gain on the front end, it will help them avoid those situations.”