While a pair of trials that took place last Thursday in Courtroom A of the Texas County Justice Center may have only been a Constitution Project exercise involving high school students, the drama was nonetheless real and the players were focused on victory.

In the project’s first-ever year as a statewide program, students from eight high schools and four regions around Missouri are taking part in a competition in which they’re judged and score points for their performance. Thursday’s trials in Houston pitted teams from south-central region representatives Dixon and Houston high schools in mock jury trials resulting from charges stemming from a mock automobile accident allegedly involving texting-and-driving and an injured passenger.

Competitors from the two schools played the roles of attorneys, witnesses and defendants, with each trial featuring a different side doing the prosecuting and defending and culminating with a jury delivering a verdict. When each squad’s scores had been tallied, Houston was declared the winner and earned the right to compete against the other three regional victors in the final round Nov. 19 in Jefferson City.

Last week’s trials were the last major component of a competition that began two weeks earlier with a crash scene investigation featuring students acting as law officers and journalists. In the upcoming “final four,” a separate incident will be investigated and subsequent trials conducted, all on the same day.

Judging the south-central region competition from beginning to end were Missouri Appeals Court Judge Mary Sheffield, Missouri State Highway Patrol Sgt. Marty Elmore and Phelps County attorneys Scott McBride and Bradley Neckerman. At the conclusion of last week’s trials, each judge addressed the crowded courtroom.

McBride said watching the students in action affected the way he will now view his own job.

“It was a unique opportunity for me to be an observer, since I’m usually on the inside,” he said. “It really gave me a different perspective on what goes on in a trial, and what we saw here today was very real and very good. From now on, I’ll think about what I do from a new viewpoint.”

Attorney Kim Lowe, who has offices in Houston and Waynesville, and Texas County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Anderson mentored the HHS defense and prosecution teams leading up to the trials. Anderson was impressed with the kids’ work and told them so.

“There was some really good talent in here today, and many of you did a really fine job,” he said. “I hope some of you will leave the door open to doing this as a career in the future.”

HHS principal Charlie Malam said it was obvious the project was hitting its mark as a means of teaching students about what goes on in the American criminal justice system and giving them a better sense of the value of the Constitution.

“As a high school principal, I wear many hats,” Malam said. “One of my primary tasks is to observe different situations and take note of any and all evidence that learning is taking place. There was plenty of evidence of learning in the courtroom today, and if you didn’t see it, you didn’t have your eyes open.

“It was very apparent that students had worked hard on this and were taking it seriously. I’m very proud of all of you for that.”

Participants in this year’s version of the project had to survive two “cuts” before taking part in the actual competition. Each had to first be selected through an application process at the high school, and later chosen by mentors as one of three or four finalists to represent their school in competition.

While Anderson and Lowe mentored Houston’s prosecution and defense teams, Houston Police Chief Jim McNiell and Sgt. Tim Ceplina mentored the law enforcement and crime scene investigation crew, and Herald editor Jeff McNiell mentored the journalists. Prior to competing, students and mentors met as many as 10 times and logged a dozen or more hours of practice.

“It was a pretty elite group that actually competed,” Jeff McNiell said. “It wasn’t just raise your hand and say, ‘I want to be in the Constitution Project.’ It was truly the best of the best that the high school had to offer.”

Jim McNiell agreed with Anderson that some of the participants might end up doing it for real some day.

“We have some students who look like natural attorneys, police officers and journalists,” he said. “They are naturals at what they’re doing. One of these days, if that’s the career choice they want to make, they’re going to be good at it. We’re seeing them already excelling at these early years in their lives.”

This year, students received little or no “coaching” during the actual competition.

“To see our kids do what they did, I was extremely impressed,” Jim McNiell said. “We trained them and turned them loose with absolutely no help. Did they make mistakes? Yes. But for the amount of time they had to prepare and the intense situation, they did an incredible job.

“The Houston High School students were prepared. It was quite a representation for our community. I left there with a sense of pride of our leaders and students.”

Texas County Associate Circuit Judge Doug Gaston founded the Constitution Project in 2011 and is its head organizer.

“We could not be prouder of these students,” Gaston said. “Their abilities and their courage shone so brightly in this competition. And their faithfulness to our Constitution and love for our country are inspiring and beautiful.

“I know I can say on behalf of everyone: Houston is so proud of you!”

“We’ve got a good thing going,” Jim McNiell said. “This project is catching on statewide and is only going to grow because it opens up the opportunity for so many kids to learn and even build a foundation for future careers. We have job shadowing programs for kids, and it opens their eyes, but the Constitution Project is first-hand experience.”

Police and CSI

Bailey Earp

Nathan Poynter

Hayley Walker

Kolby Walker

Mentors: Houston Police Department Chief Jim McNiell and Sgt. Tim Ceplina

Prosecution

Chandra Hubbs

Trevor Merckling

Camryn Scheets

Mentor: Texas County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Anderson

Defense

Chloe Morning

Laken Neal

Natasha Smith

Olivia Woosley

Mentor: Attorney Kimberly Lowe

Journalism

Sammy Garrett

Kara Neugebauer

Adriana Pena

Lizzy Swindell

Mentor: Houston Herald editor Jeff McNiell

View a gallery of photos of HHS students practicing and competing during this year’s Constitution Project at:

The Constitution Project’s website:

www.courts.mo.gov/constitutionproject/

This sketch of a Constitution Project mock crash scene was drawn by HHS student Hayley Walker.

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