Students in Wise see how law works in Courts to Classrooms

Mike Still • May 1, 2019 at 9:06 AM

BIG STONE GAP — Seniors from four Wise County and Norton high schools watched a local version of “Law and Order” at Union High School Tuesday.

Attorneys, prosecutors, “suspects,” a “victim,” court workers and police and deputies joined together to demonstrate the workings of a courtroom in Courts to Classrooms.

Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp said the program, in its fourth year, uses re-enactments of actual cases from Wise County General District Court to show students basic court procedures, points of law and the consequences of breaking laws.

General District Court Judge Ronald Elkins presided over Tuesday’s court on the Union auditorium stage with a layout similar to what suspects, witnesses, victims and observers would see at the Wise County Courthouse.

Defendants and their counsel sat at their table and prosecutors manned their table. Elkins and Circuit Court Master Deputy Clerk Dezerah Adams oversaw the proceedings from a folding table bench, and a Union Bears-emblazoned folding chair served as the witness stand. Real-life bailiff and Wise County Sheriff’s Deputy Pete Bowers commanded the audience and court to rise, and the morning’s two trials proceeded much as a normal General District Court trial would.

Students watched as “defendant” Courtney Mullins and “victim” Cassie Carnes were the focus of a case of assault and battery and underage drinking. Slemp and defense attorney Joseph Carico argued whether Mullins had attacked and hit Carnes in a dispute over rent at their shared residence.

When Assistant Sheriff Grant Kilgore testified that he arrived at the scene and found the underage Mullins had admitted to drinking before the incident, Carico questioned Kilgore about whether he had properly requested to see Mullins’ driver’s license. Carico’s and Slemp’s exchanges showed students the responsibilities police face in searches during an investigation.

Carnes’ “victim” also faced questions about her character and whether she paid her share of the rent on time, adding to students’ education on the importance of character and credibility.

The second trial brought drunk driving “suspect” Trevor Boggs before Judge Elkins, and Norton Police Officer Zachary Church had to explain to Slemp and defense attorney Brent Fleming the complexity of testing a driver for intoxication.

Church spent several minutes on the witness stand explaining various field sobriety tests and the details of giving a suspect a breathalyzer test, as Fleming grilled him on whether he had waited too long under laws requiring a test within two hours.

Boggs’ character added something extra: allegations that he lied about his identity when Church arrived at the scene of a two-vehicle crash involving Boggs.

Fleming also raised questions about whether Church had advised “suspect” Boggs of his Miranda rights after having handcuffed and arrested him.

In a question-and-answer session after the “trials,” Elkins explained how he decided his guilty “verdicts” against Mullins’ and Boggs’ characters. He also talked about other aspects of his role as judge.

“Even the lowest of the low in the system deserve a proper defense,” Elkins said of presiding over trials and various hearings leading up to those trials.

Slemp said his inspiration to become a lawyer was “the chance to touch people’s lives positively.”

Slemp said getting convictions is not the only goal of his office. Helping crime victims and witnesses and appropriate sentencing for minor offenses through programs such as the county’s work-to-release system instead of jail are also important, he said.

Carico, a former commonwealth’s attorney and judge who also works in legal aid, said his experience has helped him appreciate “being able to help people at their lowest point.”

“Lawyers can help people in the saddest chapters of their lives,” said Carico.

Fleming, asked why he chose to become a lawyer, said growing up in the ’80s influenced him.

“I grew up watching ‘Night Court’ and ‘L.A. Law’ and thought that it looked fun,” Fleming said, turning serious when he said that it is important for any defendant to be able to present their case.

“There’s going to be a consequence,” Fleming added when asked what is the most important thing anyone should know when coming to court in any role.

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