December 01, 2016
Tulane Criminal Law Clinic student-attorneys David Wolfenson and Kelsey Tebo-Baker (above) and Johannah Cousins and Kelly Mitchell (below) (all L ’17) take on roles of prosecutors and defense lawyers during an interdisciplinary mock trial, with medical school forensic fellows acting as expert witnesses (bottom).
Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano
By Barri Bronston
The defendant, according to his attorney, shot and killed his cancer-stricken father because voices were telling him to put him out of his misery. He asked the judge to acquit him because he was insane at the time of the crime.
“Delusional thoughts had a significant impact on his ability to distinguish right from wrong,” the defense attorney said.
The prosecutor argued that the defendant knew exactly what he was doing when he took his father’s life. “Grandiose thinking doesn’t mean he can’t tell right from wrong,” the prosecutor said.
The closing arguments took place in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court — except those serving as defense lawyer and prosecutor actually were Tulane Law School students, and the expert witnesses were forensic psychiatry fellows of Tulane Medical School.
Based on a real case, the annual mock trial is part of an interdisciplinary collaboration between the two schools to provide training in how to deal with challenging mental health issues in criminal cases. It is a requirement for students in Professor Katherine Mattes’ Criminal Law Clinic and is designed to give law students and forensic psychiatry fellows a chance to practice skills that can make them more effective in the courtroom.
Not unlike physicians-in-training, law students need hands-on experience with situations they’re likely to face in practice. Mattes has particular expertise on the intersection of criminal justice and mental illness, an area of growing concern in seeking appropriate sentences and treatment for offenders.
Student-attorneys in Tulane’s Criminal, Civil, Domestic Violence, Environmental and Juvenile Law clinics are authorized by the Louisiana Supreme Court to represent clients, with faculty supervision, during their third year of law school. The students handle all elements of representation, from client interviews and document preparation, to presenting arguments at administrative hearings, in state and federal trial-level courts and at the state’s highest court.
In some cases, client advocacy goes even further. For instance, in June 2016, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law Act 469, which resulted from a bill drafted by Sara Norval and Toby Hasler (both L ’16), both in the Criminal Law Clinic at the time, to permit inmates caught in a window of draconian sentences to seek a parole hearing.
“Katherine’s teaching serves as a model for how schools throughout the university can collaborate to enhance students’ training and increase their exposure to real-world application of theories taught in the classroom,” said Stacy Seicshnaydre (L ’92), associate dean for experiential learning and public interest programs.
The November mock trial exercise consisted of three rounds in two courtrooms, giving 10 law students and two forensic psychiatry fellows an opportunity to test their skills. Following closing arguments, they gathered in the judge’s chambers to get feedback from Tulane law and medical school faculty who had been observing from the jury box.
Kyle Daly (L ’09), an assistant district attorney who played the role of judge, complimented students but noted that in some instances their language and style could have been stronger. He warned one student against telling the judge to “do the right the thing” in his closing argument.
Mattes said she was pleased with how students presented themselves: “They stepped up to the challenge of working with real experts in a real courtroom environment.”
Student-attorney Kelsey Tebo-Baker (L ’17) called the experience “unique and very instructive because we were able to practice with real experts and get direct feedback from them.”
Barri Bronston is Tulane University's assistant director of public relations.