News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 10, 2012

College’s mock trial makes justice more than academic

Harrison students learn real-life lessons in ‘prosecuting’ campus president

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The defendant stood accused of insurance fraud, false informing, criminal confinement, conspiracy to commit arson, obstruction of justice, maintaining a common nuisance, dealing in a controlled substance — and to top it all off — conspiracy to commit murder.

With a juicy hint of prostitution!

And, he wasn’t just any defendant. Brennan Randolph is president of the Terre Haute campus of Harrison College. His accusers were students in Harrison’s Criminal Justice program, and his defenders were also students, faculty and staff at the career-focused institution of higher education on Indiana 46 on Terre Haute’s east side.

With Judge Christopher Newton of Vigo Superior Court 4 presiding over a mock trial of Randolph, the chosen careers of several Harrison students became more real last week in the culmination of a lengthy project.

“It’s almost like a class exercise and a field trip rolled into one,” said criminal justice program coordinator Brian Royer as the courtroom drama played out.

The project began last spring at Harrison and continued this fall as students learned about crime scenes and even witnessed a staged “arson” event, collected evidence and prepared the case against “suspect” Randolph.

“It’s almost like a movie with a script,” Royer said as students Brandy Fields and Cierra Hartwell prosecuted the case. Student Tionna Towles defended her client.

Campus dean Sara Arnett declared that Randolph was an honest man who wouldn’t even cheat on his taxes.

But witness Brian Tienken told Judge Newton that he had been beaten and confined in a shed — the one that burned down — after his car was blown up, all on the orders of the dastardly Mr. Randolph.

The students brought in boxes of bottles, fake guns, letters and other “evidence” that was introduced to the case. They had fingerprints and lab results, and they testified with integrity.

Fields, who said she was chosen to be prosecutor because “apparently, I’m argumentative,” said the preparation for the trial was time-consuming and difficult. She is in her second year as a student at Harrison and hopes to work as a parole officer.

“It’s nerve-racking,” she said of questioning the witnesses of the mock trial.

Judge Newton gently gave instruction to the students throughout the trial, and he commended the “attorneys” for their non-law-school-trained efforts.

“I would have been terrified,” Newton said to them, noting that his own law school days did not have the type of training that the students received to prepare for the mock trial.

“I really didn’t have experiences like this, so I think in some ways, this is better preparing you for criminal justice,” Newton said.

That’s the point, Royer said.

The criminal justice program at Harrison College is career-oriented, he said. “If you complete this program, you will be employable in either the courts, corrections or criminal justice,” Royer said.

Himself a graduate of the criminology program at Indiana State University, and having taught at ISU, Royer said he likes the practical application of classes that Harrison students receive.

“We are now taking all the classroom learning and applying it to the real world and court system,” he said.

Newton serves on the advisory board for the college’s criminal justice program, along with Vigo Sheriff Greg Ewing, Clay County Prosecutor Lee Reberger and Judge David Bolk.

Ewing said he employs some Harrison College graduates in the Vigo County Jail as correctional officers, and their training is valuable on the job.

“It’s essential,” Newton said of the mock trial experience. “I think that when you have the hands-on experience like this, it pulls all the things in the classroom, textbook and semester together. You have a nearly authentic experience.”

With students from a general education class serving as the “jury”, the case moved along for more than two hours. In reality, such a complicated case would probably take about two weeks, the judge said.

In the end, however, Newton had to declare that the prosecution had not met the high burden of “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” so Randolph was acquitted.

Good thing for him. He has a college to run.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.