Many of the high school students participating in the University of Arizona summer Law Camp already had observed some kind of legal proceeding.
Encouraged by their parents or through field trips, a few students had visited courts for criminal cases or closing statements and, in one case, to watch siblings being adopted. Also, some had participated in mock trial in high school.
But most had not experienced what the University of Arizona's Youth University is offering at the James E. Rogers College of Law.
The week-long in-depth and interactive course is designed to inform students about the legal field. Also, it allows for debates about contemporary legal issues and education around the importance of advocating on behalf of youth who are called to testify in court.
"Since the mid-1980s, people have been looking at how to best help kids to testify in court," said Rebecca Nathanson, the James Rogers Professor of Education and Law in the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada.
Nathanson, along with other instructors and guest speakers led the Law Camp, which runs June 4-8 at the UA College of Law. She oversees the camp with Paul Bennett, a UA clinical professor of law.
On June 4, Nathanson modeled the session after the Kids' Court School that she developed in Nevada during the 1990s. The program has reached 717 children and youth, informing them not about their own cases, but about the role of lawyers and the court before they testify in court cases.
"Most kids know nothing about court," said Nathanson, also a research professor at UA McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families.
"What my research focuses on is looking at how to best allow them to tell their stories in court," she said. "My research shows that kids are twice as much more likely to tell better if they go through the court."
Last year, Nathanson worked with UA students and faculty at the John & Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences and the Cooperative Extension, along with the Bureau of Justice to launch a similar program in Tucson – the first of its kind in Pima County.
Through her research and work, Nathanson is deeply invested in informing children and youth about the legal field and the role of the law and courts while also informing them on ways to tell their own stories should they be called to court.
For the rest of the camp, other presenters include: Bennett, who also co-directs the Child and Family Law Clinic and heads up the Law Camp; Robert Glennon, the Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy, renowned for his research on the nation's water crisis; attorneys Monique Toledo Bryan and Richard Kingston; and Honorable Judge D. Thomas Ferraro of the U.S. District Court.
Collin Wilson, who attends a Tucson-area private school, said he decided to enroll in the summer camp because he had a strong desire to learn more about the U.S. Constitution.
"Constitutional law is a very controversial subject," said Wilson, 15. "I'm not sure about a career yet, but I wanted to know how it works and also about the proceedings in law."
For Holly Zheng, it was an advanced placement government course during her freshman year of high school that tipped her off to an interest in the legal field.
Already interested in becoming a physician, Zheng said the summer camp is exploratory. "I want to see all disciplines before I decide," said Zheng, who attends a BASIS school in Tucson.
The summer camp proved to be a strong study for Zheng and other participants.
In addition to learning about different state laws, the principles that drive the field and ethical considerations, the students are called to debate.
And, on June 4, several of the students learned the complex nature of trying a case.
Involved in a mock court proceeding at the law school, students served the roles of the victim, defendant, witnesses, the judge, bailiff and members of the jury.
The case, as Nathanson described it, seemed clear cut: A little boy parks his bike in the front yard of his house. A little girl later accuses a man of stealing a neighbor's bike. But another witness, an older woman, says she had seen the man riding the bike earlier; that he didn't steal it.
The group ran two different trials with students serving in alternate roles.
The first, according to the jury, was botched. The jury found the man not guilty on the grounds that the evidence did not hold: testimonies were conflicting, witnesses were unreliable and even the defendant's gender was in question.
In the second trail run, the jury found the man guilty of stealing the bike.
Karly Marinas, who served as the older woman in the second trial, said she took an interest in the Law Camp because she plans to one day serve as an lawyer focusing on business contracts.
"I like to debate and thought being a lawyer would be a good goal for me," said Marinas, 15, who attends school in Vail School District. "I love the mock trail and I love getting into character in a way that helps to make or break a case."
Marinas said that while she knows for certain that she has little interest serving in criminal law, that she wants "to do something to help people, but in a way that I feel comfortable."
Nathanson and the other instructors coached the students on their strategies in trying the case, on how they held court, their presence and demeanor, especially with regard to the victim, witnesses and members of the jury.
Madeleine Linson, who served as the prosecutor in the first run, said she lost the case because she did not ask the right questions. But she was happy for the experience.
"I want to be a detective, and this is a fun way to experience it," said Linson, 14, who attends a Tucson area high school and participated in last year's camp as well.
"Being interactive is the way to draw us in and get us focused," Linson said. "And we don't do mock trial at my school, so this is the only way."