Mock trial is part of teens’ leadership training

"If I could put you in jail, I would," the judge told the defendant, following his conviction for speeding during a brief trial this morning.

"I can’t believe this type of conduct by a person of your stature. The speeds you drive on these county roads are just atrocious."

By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily News/[email protected]

That strong rebuke was accompanied by an equally harsh sentence. The conviction for speeding at nearly 100 mph earned the defendant a $250 fine and a one-year license suspension.

The catch: Defendant Brian Bekker was never actually speeding and his trial and subsequent sentencing were all an act.

No, Havre has not been selected as the site for a new TV courtroom drama. Instead, Bekker, who is state District Judge David Rice’s assistant, good-naturedly agreed to pretend to be a defendant in a fictional court case as part of Youth Leadership High School. Sponsored by the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce and Havre Public Schools, the program is designed to teach high school students leadership skills and get them involved in their community.

Today the program took two dozen students out of the classroom and into local government. In addition to watching the mock trial, the students were also scheduled to meet with the Hill County commissioners and Havre Mayor Bob Rice, take a crash course in jury duty from Clerk of Court Dena Tippets, and tour the city police and fire departments.

The excercise is intended to "give an overview of how our city and county operate and a snapshot of the various essential working entities," a press release for the program said.

Hill County Attorney Cyndee Peterson said in an interview that part of the program is to influence students to consider working as public servants.

"Public employees don’t make the money you could in the private sector, so public employees have a different motivation for doing their jobs," she said.

The students started their day in the courtroom on the third floor of the Hill County Courthouse. Bekker was represented by local lawyer Bob Peterson, who was forced to square off against Hill County Attorney Peterson, who is his wife. The two lawyers went through the jury selection process, ultimately choosing six of 12 high school students who were part of a potential jury pool.

After making inquiries of the 12 prospective jurors, each Peterson eliminated three candidates, including one who said his father is a personal friend of Bob Peterson, and another who admitted to having gotten a speeding ticket in the last year.

Hill County sheriff’s deputy Ric Munfrada testified that he clocked Bekker driving at 94 mph. Bob Peterson during cross-examination attacked the accuracy of the radar unit, and tried to establish reasonable doubt.

The jury was unconvinced. In less than 15 minutes, it returned with a verdict of guilty. Although Bekker was hardly tried by his peers – he has a law degree while the jurors are all high school juniors – Cyndee Peterson told the audience that the trial was an accurate representation of what takes place during a trial.

After the proceeding, Rice and the two lawyers offered some insights to their attentive audience.

Rice stressed the importance of jury service.

Cyndee Peterson said she derives motivation to do her job by prosecuting drunken drivers and perpetrators of domestic violence.

"I feel like I make a difference, not every day, but almost every day," she said. "I feel like I do the right thing."

Her husband, a defense attorney, cited the importance of the presumption of innocence and the right of the accused to receive a fair trial.

"I protect peoples’ liberties," he said.

This is the first year the leadership program has held a mock trial.

"We wanted to stress the importance of jury service, the knowledge of how our system works, the difficulties that people face on both sides of the criminal system and how much work goes into it," Cyndee Peterson said. "One of the major hurdles is people see things on TV, and that’s not at all how it is."

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