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Students cap their year by arguing the case of Landry Lopez vs. Buddy's Burgers LLC

YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT - Sauvie Island School eighth-grader Pete Foley cross examines a witness during the virtual mock trial presided over by Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Jenefer Grant at the end of the school year.Courtroom drama.

From the fictionalized versions that fill movie screens to the real-life trials the world follows on television, in newspapers and on the web, everyone knows what makes great courtroom drama.

The eighth-graders at Sauvie Island School know it, too. They proved as much at the end of the 2019-20 school year when they participated in the annual mock trial presided over by Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Jenefer Grant.

As to this year's mock trial (Landry Lopez vs. Buddy's Burgers LLC) — held virtually with Judge Grant in her courtroom, and Sauvie Island School's students and teachers in their homes — it had all the hallmarks of a great court drama, including potential theft, jealousy, hidden motives, financial losses and cover-ups.

In the fictional case — modified from the Classroom Law Project archives — an employee (Landry Lopez) at a hamburger restaurant (Buddy's Burgers) gets fired for closing the restaurant early one night. In the process, the employee costs her boss and the business thousands of dollars by missing a late-day event that was forced to go elsewhere.

But is that what really happened, or was it something else?

Yes, the employee closed the restaurant early, and yes it cost Buddy's Burgers money, but there was precedent for closing early and the event had never been added to the restaurant's schedule.

Further, Lopez had seen another employee — the owner's favorite employee — stealing money and she reported it. The owner was not happy to hear it, and according to Lopez, the owner fired her for being a whistleblower.

That fictional incident set in motion the court case tried before Judge Grant, with students serving as lawyers for the plaintiff and defense, and portraying the various players in the incident, including Lopez, her boss, the favorite employee, witnesses and more.

The students who participated in the mock trial included Carter Cawley, Colin Chase, Marlee Eskander, September Fay, Peter Foley, Conrad Francis, Deacon Frobisher, Ellen Harrel, Tristan Jolissaint, Anna Krauter, Keely Mahaffy, Lauren Miller, Gracie Nelson, Hayden O'Connor, Safia Richley, Mia Saalfeld, Hayden Taylor, Annika VanDyke and Makayla Voreis.

The virtual court case was organized and coordinated by Sauvie Island eighth-grade teacher Matt Radich, and a handful of his fellow teachers participated in jury deliberations.

"I think the Mock Trial unit and culminating trial are valuable for many reasons," Radich wrote in an email. "Navigating working in teams, analyzing the nuance and complexities of different laws, public speaking, the opportunity to interact with community members and a real judge in a professional setting, and a glimpse into 'real life' and possible career paths."

"Mock trials are a way to bring the law alive for students and to encourage them to be active citizens," added Stephanie McBride, a board member at Sauvie Island School.

YOUTUBE SCREENSHOT - Makayla Voreis, an eighth-grader at Sauvie Island School, presents the opening argument for the plaintiff during the virtual mock trial presided over by Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Jenefer Grant at the end of the school year.

Landry Lopez vs. Buddy's Burgers

The case opened with a statement by the plaintiff's attorney, Makayla Voreis, who said, in part: "This case is about a 19-year-old who was unfairly terminated for doing the right thing. … People reporting crimes are protected whistle-blowers and should be safe from retaliation."

Next came a response for the defense by attorney Annika VanDyke, who said, in part: "The plaintiff will try to show that Miss Lopez was fired because she lost the trust and integrity of my client by closing Buddy's Burgers 30 minutes early. … Miss Lopez's decision to close the restaurant early cost Buddy's Burgers … $1,000, give or take, and damaged the reputation of the business. That is why she was fired."

A virtual courtroom battle

From there, the two sides launched into a virtual courtroom battle, each side calling witnesses and sharing testimony, and each side calling different sources to counter the other side's information. Judge Grant then gave her jury instructions before hearing closing arguments.

First came Gracie Nelson, speaking for the defendant: "In order for the plaintiffs to win, they have to prove that (Lopez) was fired for being a whistle-blower, but the evidence provided does not prove (it). We have clearly proved that Landry was fired because she closed early, which caused my client a great deal of harm."

Next, Hayden O'Connor tried to close the deal for the plaintiff: "Landry Lopez was unfairly terminated for doing the right thing. Lopez saw (the other employee) take cash out of the box. … What better way to protect your star employee then by getting rid of the whistle-blower?"

The verdict

Finally, after deliberations by Radich and his colleagues, and some instruction from Grant, the jury came back unanimously in favor of the plaintiff (Lopez).

After all the students' work during the case, the adults involved talked about just how impressed they were with the kids' efforts.

"After listening to the evidence, it could have gone either way," Grant said. "But honestly, the fact that (the jury) had such a good discussion and … had to be so thoughtful about it, that's a tribute to how well the students did because the acting was really good, the playing of parts was really good and the attorneys' presentations were great."

"The students responded well. They definitely rose to the occasion," Radich said. "I think different students have different take-aways from the trial. There's the skillset that I hope they learned, but I think some would say they took away the importance of preparation, of how to stay calm under pressure, of how to communicate with professionals in our community, a small glimpse of how the legal system works, the ins-and-outs of a civil trial. Or maybe, they took away whether their team won or lost the case and what they would do differently next time."

The MVPs

Radich added that each side in the case gave out an MVP award to a member of the other team; the winner for the defense (as chosen by the plaintiff's team) was Francis, while Richley was honored for the plaintiff's team (as chosen by the defense).

You can see the trail video by clicking here.

You can see the jury deliberations video by clicking here.

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