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Courting Justice Gu Law Students Giving Kids At 30 Schools A Taste Of Legal System Basics Through `Street Law’ Program

The jury, having reviewed the evidence, was in an ugly mood.

Some jurors wanted to send Michael Jordan to the electric chair, never mind that this was a personal-injury case.

“Chair! Chair! Chair!” they chanted.

After a half-hour of deliberations (and a growing dread of missing lunch), the panel dropped its death penalty demand and awarded pop star Ini Kamoze $1,280 in damages for getting bopped on the nose by Jordan.

The fifth-graders trooped proudly into the “jury box” inside teacher Mike Mattoon’s classroom to declare the verdict.

Judge Jaime Elliott, 12, gaveled the trial to a close, ending four weeks of law and justice, Logan Elementary School-style.

The hands-on lessons come courtesy of “Street Law,” a new program encouraging appreciation and understanding of the legal system - and the people making a living in it. Even the lawyers.

This year, 50 Gonzaga Law School students will visit 30 Spokane schools, with audiences ranging from fingerpainting kindergarteners to high school seniors.

Role-playing keeps kids interested and drives home important lessons.

In Mattoon’s combined class of fifth- and sixth-graders, the bailiff reported for duty Friday sporting a slick doorman’s cap. The court reporter tapped away at a Radio Shack portable computer. The judge wore a black graduation gown.

“It’s pretty cool,” said sixthgrader Matt Holmes, who played Jordan. “It teaches you a lot - better than reading from a social studies textbook.”

Spencer Jackson came to court wearing a Loony Toons tie and a white workshirt borrowed from his father that hung off his back like a mainsail. Afterward, Jackson, drained by his performance as the plaintiff’s lawyer, said he’s changed his mind about the profession.

“I kinda thought their job was easy,” he said, “but once you do it, you know it’s pretty hard.”

Street Law was introduced to Spokane last year as an experiment.

So many public and private schools are clamoring for the hands-on program, a waiting list has sprouted.

Gonzaga law students volunteer chunks of their time, receiving no credit for participating.

It’s a burden, but a rewarding one. The first-year students assigned to Logan Elementary - Jim Senescu, Thad Huse and Darin Calbreath - sacrificed crucial study time for next week’s big exam on tort law. Senescu, who still hears lawyer jokes at family get-togethers, hopes Street Law prevents disdain for the law from taking root in young minds.

The key is education: “We’re putting some sense into all that stuff they don’t understand,” he said.

Naturally, the starting point was the O.J. Simpson murder case.

Is the football Hall of Famer guilty or innocent? Is he lying? Would he have a defense team if he wasn’t rich?

The law students braved a blizzard of O.J. questions, then moved neatly into less sexy topics, like public defenders and the Bill of Rights.

“I can’t believe how pumped up these kids are,” said Mattoon, the teacher.

Taking advantage, he organized field trips to the county courthouse, where the class talked to a judge and sat in on jury selection.

Street Law is “good, positive stuff,” Mattoon said, sorely needed in the low-income neighborhood surrounding the North Side school where college is often an empty dream.

“It’s a way for Gonzaga Law School to give back to the community,” said Lynn Daggett, an assistant law professor supervising the program.

While new to Spokane, Street Law is more than 20 years old.

It started in 1972 as an experimental course in two Washington, D.C., high school classrooms, taught by law students at Georgetown University.

Daggett joined a similar volunteer program 10 years ago while studying law at the University of Connecticut.

After she joined the Gonzaga faculty in 1991, students encouraged her to organize a similar effort.

Most volunteers are like Calbreath, who wants to show by example how some would-be lawyers have more at heart than making money.

“We’re trying to open their eyes to education - even law school,” he said.

Some of that inspiration rubbed off on 12-year-old Meaghan Stetzik, who was smiling through her braces after the mock trial.

“I want to be a judge,” she said, “so I can sit in the big chair and take care of the court. Cool.”

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