Home Law School News Students participate in Trial Practicum

Students participate in Trial Practicum

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Russ Lovell, Court Reporter, Judge Eliza Ovrom, Court Attendant, Polk County Attorney Justin Allen and Drake law student Amanda Brookhyser.
First-year students observed an actual jury trial in the criminal case of State v. Linda Wilson during this year’s Trial Practicum, which was held in the courtroom of the Neal and Bea Smith Law Center.
District Court Judge Eliza Ovrom presided. Justin Allen was lead counsel for the prosecution, ably assisted by Amanda Brookhyser, a third-year law student and prosecuting intern. Pat O’Bryan, LW’76, was counsel for defendant Wilson.
Wilson was charged with second-degree theft and third-degree theft, both felonies. The state charged that Wilson and her son, John Wilson, defrauded Target of approximately $1,750 in a series of five sale-refund transactions of iPods at various Target stores in the Des Moines area. John Wilson had not been apprehended and thus was not a co-defendant.
John Wilson purchased iPods at various Target stores, took them home, opened the boxes and removed the iPods, replacing the iPod with batteries approximately the same weight as the iPod. He would shrink wrap the original package to look as through it had never been opened. Then his mother, Linda Wilson, returned each of the packages for a cash refund of $350. The iPods were sold on eBay.
On the morning of the third day of the trial, the jury convicted Wilson of both theft second degree and theft third degree.
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L to R: Law student Jay Grimes, Polk County Attorney Jess Vilsack, Judge Colin Witt, students Erica Nichols and Lucas Spoelstra and Prof. Robert Rigg.
The Trial Practicum also included the beginning of State v. Marlin McMurray, a case involving a misdemeanor charge of assault on a peace officer. This case was principally tried by third-year student interns — Jay Grimes for the state and Erica Nichols and Lucas Spoelstra of the Drake Criminal Defense Clinic.
Grimes was supervised by Assistant Polk County Attorney Jess Vilsack. Drake law professor Robert Rigg, LW’78, supervised student interns Nichols and Spoelstra. Associate District Judge Colin Witt presided.
The defendant filed a motion raising an issue of first impression under Iowa case law. The issue was whether the statute would apply since the Des Moines police officer, though in uniform, was working as a private security guard at the time of the alleged assault.
The court took the motion under advisement. At the conclusion of jury selection, the state dismissed the charges with prejudice, which was approved by Judge Witt.
“Students were disappointed they did not see a second complete trial,” said Russ Lovell, associate dean and program director of the Trial Practicum. “The abrupt dismissal served to emphasize that trials are unpredictable and that flexibility and an ability to adapt are important characteristics for trial lawyers and judges.”
During the Trial Practicum, students participated in daily small-group discussions led by 20 volunteer faculty, lawyers and judges in which they evaluated the evidence, court rulings and lawyer strategy and performance. Students were able to debrief the lawyers and judge in both cases, and to debrief the jurors in the State v. Wilson case following their verdict.
Over the 12 years the Trial Practicum has been held, Drake law students — nearly 1,800 of them — have rated the Practicum experience highly, and many have rated it exceptional experiential education.
At the conclusion of this year’s Practicum, Nnawuihe C. Ukabiala of Urbandale, said, “I found the Trial Practicum to be, in one word, exhilarating.
“It was like watching everything I read over the course of my first semester of law school come to life before my very eyes,” he added. “The experience provides an invaluable opportunity to explore the practicalities of litigation absent from the casebooks. It reaffirmed the profound respect for our justice system that initially compelled me to seek a legal career.”
The Trial Practicum has garnered significant national attention for Drake Law School during this past year. It was cited in the Law School’s No. 2 national ranking for “Best Practical Training” in National Jurist magazine and in the presentation of the 2008 Gambrell Prize for professionalism by the American Bar Association.
In addition, the Trial Practicum is the reason Drake is listed among the nine law schools cited for curricular innovation by the Association of American Law Schools.
This cutting-edge educational program could not happen without the collaboration between the Law School and the courts, court personnel and security and the county attorney. Lovell cites in particular the leadership of Chief Judge Arthur Gamble and Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, LW’75, as key factors in the success of the Trial Practicum.