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Law Judge leads the way for instructional tape

After seven years of explaining America’s criminal court system with a video made in the early 1980s, federal magistrate Judge Leo Papas decided he needed new material.

It wasn’t that the tape was bad. But, new technology made the tape seem older than it was and Papas thought today’s school children couldn’t relate to the video’s plot, which revolved around the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

He enlisted the help of two court clerks, and they created a real scenario involving the criminal trial of two middle school students arrested for drug possession with intent to sell. Both students blame each other for the crime on the tape, and the jury must decide which defendant is guilty.

“I thought a more up-to-date, modern scenario would work,” Papas said. “I thought it was something the kids would easily identify with and perhaps get more out of. Not just from a standpoint of learning about the judicial system, but also learning about their role as citizens in the community and society.”

The mock trial features student volunteers, ages 9 to 16, playing the roles of courtroom personnel, from judge to attorneys to jurors.


– Videos Tailored For Instruction

Co-creator Elizabeth Sitnick said two tapes were made. A 25-minute version with breaks for the lecturer to explain certain aspects of the case, and a 50-minute version that features Papas explaining everything from the witness’ oath to tell the truth to closing arguments.

Breaks in the shorter tape “help maintain interest in the video and in the students so that their minds don’t start wandering or get distracted,” Papas said.

The 50-minute tape is thorough, and Papas believes it will be well-received by third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders.

Cynthia Cwik, co-chair of the Children at Risk Committee of the San Diego Bar Association, said both videos would be available through the bar association and that the 25-minute version would ideally be used by a judge-and-lawyer team.

The Children at Risk Committee was formed in 1994 to advance the interest of children in the legal forum.

“I am very enthused about it,” she said. “I thought it was a great idea.”


– Fourth-Graders To Get First Look

The bar association doesn’t have any tape like it. The videos will premiere Feb. 15 in the fourth-grade classroom of Tierrasanta Elementary School.

“One of the first things we needed to do was see if we could get a professional (production company) to work with us,” Cwik said. “We couldn’t use our home camcorders and try to record it.”

That was when Cwik contacted August Larsen, president of San Diego-based AJL Litigation.

AJL, which primarily tapes depositions, witness statements and opening presentations, was happy to assist, Larsen said.

“From my understanding it is a mentoring opportunity for attorneys,” he said. “And most of our pro bono work has been in that area.”

Larsen said he donated the work hours and material needed to produce both videos. He estimated the cost was $300 per finished minute, or $22,500 for both versions.

The Children at Risk Committee offered a $5,000 grant for the video’s shooting, which included lunch for the actors, editing and distribution.


– An Innovative Outreach Effort

Pro bono work is nothing new to the law profession, but that doesn’t mean it must be done in a courtroom or a stereotypical legal setting, according to people involved in the mock trial video.

“I see this as a really fun way for (attorneys) to get involved,” Sitnick said.

Papas said going to the classroom was appropriate, but the tape could be used in other arenas.

“I see this particular tape as something that can be utilized in circumstances way beyond high school, middle school and grade school,” he said.

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