History offers lesson in justice In court: Seventh-graders re-enact the 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden in study of judicial process.

March 03, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

After a trial that lasted two class periods, the seventh grade at Sykesville Middle School acquitted Lizzie Borden of double murder charges.

Social studies teacher JoAnn B. Heller planned the mock trial to give her students a better understanding of the judicial process. The class studied the court system, reviewed legal documents and read Lizzie Borden's history.

They reached the same conclusion last week that a jury of Borden's peers did in 1892.

"There just was not enough evidence against her," said Adam Naumann, jury foreman. "The defense did a good job and had good questions."

The prosecution did not present enough evidence to warrant a guilty verdict, juror Scott Buckmaster said. "The same thing happened 100 years ago," he said.

Josh Priest, the lone holdout for a guilty verdict, eventually bowed to pressure from the remaining jurors and his teacher, who noted time constraints -- the students had to leave for their next class.

"We should have had more time to argue," said Josh. "Making a decision is not so easy."

And changing 11 other opinions was nearly impossible, said juror Amber Geiger. "Everybody else was firm in their decision," she said.

Ms. Heller said she placed "students who are hardest to draw into a lesson" on the jury and found that the drama piqued their interest.

Others students took parts such as clerk and bailiff to make the courtroom-classroom as authentic as possible. A toss of the coin decided who would play the coveted role of Lizzie, who was accused of delivering deadly whacks with an ax to her father and stepmother.

Attorneys rehearsed their arguments and prepared witnesses for testimony.

The trial began Tuesday before a "courtroom" filled with parents.

"The mock trial really captured their interest," said Teresa Morse, who watched her son Andrew in the drama. "They are all talking about the court system."

Miriam Bean, who had the prosecution team rehearsing for hours at her home, called the trial a wonderful learning experience for her son and his classmates.

"This was much better than learning a boring list of terms," Ms. Bean said. "This way the kids put their lessons into action."

Ms. Heller said her students "can tell you anything about the case and the trial, the different theories and different versions of the story."

The attorneys paced in front of the witness stand and fired questions. Behnaz, Nabavian, who made a convincing prosecutor, said she lost the case when she called witnesses who were unsure of the facts.

"This project made them think about something serious, not frivolous," said Josie Nabavian, her mother.

The prosecution made much of Lizzie's calm demeanor at the scene of the crime and her purchase of a stain-removing acid.

"Lizzie had the perfect motive for murder," said the prosecution. "She hated her stepmother and her father was signing away all his property to his wife."

The defense hoped it had planted seeds of doubt with evidence of an unlocked back door and an unidentified man racing away from the Borden home minutes after the killings.

"Decide strictly on the evidence presented," defense attorney Laura Trent told the jury.

Digging for evidence is daunting and then difficult to present, she said. She found an unconfirmed story that Borden was left-handed. If she could have introduced that information, it would have made her case.

"We knew the killer was right-handed from the place of the wounds," Laura said.

Kevin Carter, who played Judge Dewey, said 100 years of history made the murder trial "less scary. It's neat to learn about trials, no matter what the crime."

The children have become so immersed in the case that they might plan a summer trip to Fall River, Mass., where the Borden family's home has been converted to a bed and breakfast, Ms. Heller said.

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