By: Rachel Pender (Wake Forest Law ’20)
For many law students, Criminal Law can be a difficult first-year course. It is less like a Law and Order episode and more like a philosophy class focused on abstract ideas like the purpose of punishment and the meaning of intent. Criminal Law professors can use experiential learning to help students connect these abstract ideas to tangible cases. One excellent example is a jury simulation that several Criminal Law professors at Wake Forest jointly developed to use with their sections. While this activity involved a criminal case, many of the practical lessons learned apply with equal force to all jury trials, whether criminal or civil, and similar experiential learning exercises can be used in other courses.
A week before the jury simulation, my professor emailed the class a packet of information from a real case, including a fact summary and trial transcripts. Our case involved a man who shot four people on a subway, believing they were about to rob him. The four victims were located in different locations throughout the subway car. One of the victims directly spoke with the defendant, while the others were not within arm’s reach.
Our professor explained that we were going to serve as a mock jury in the case. Thus, we did not discuss the case in class, and he instructed us to also refrain from conducting outside research on the case because he wanted to ensure that all jurors entered the deliberation with only their own impressions of the case. My professor also distributed a list of assigned juries, mixing students from different sections to help recreate some of the dynamics of an actual jury.
On the day of jury deliberations, our professors had all 1Ls meet in a large courtroom on campus where professors argued brief closing statements for the prosecution and defense and provided jury instructions. The preassigned jury groups then met in various classrooms to deliberate a verdict. No one could leave the room until the jury came to a unanimous decision on all four shootings or after at least one hour of deliberation in the case of a hung jury.
The jury simulation applied concepts discussed in class. The simulation reinforced the importance of jury selection. I also learned that all jurors bring their own biases to deliberation. For example, the defendant in the case used a concealed handgun in the shooting, which proved to be a divisive issue within my jury. A few jurors strongly felt one way and would not change their minds regardless of the comments of their fellow jurors or the evidence adduced at trial.
In class, we had also discussed the significance of jury instructions, but this simulation showed how quickly a jury can forget or misunderstand those instructions. For example, members of my jury struggled to recall our jurisdiction’s definition of intent and got wrapped up in our own perceptions of the terms “murder,” “manslaughter,” “guilty,” and “not guilty.” The jury simulation helped these concepts come alive in a tangible and memorable way.
For these reasons and many more, experiential learning exercises like our jury simulation are a great way to help students apply doctrinal concepts to a real situation and reinforce information discussed in the classroom.
What experiential exercises have you tried with your students that have ultimately proven successful? Share your ideas at [email protected]