Unit 3: Presumed Innocent: Jury Trials and the Pursuit of Justice

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury in criminal cases, and those accused of committing a crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty. In this unit, students consider how the criminal justice system balances the need to hold people accountable for their actions with the need to protect the constitutional rights of the accused. In the roles of prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors, and courtroom staff, students take two cases to trial. Students use legal reasoning to develop a logically valid theory of the case, select a trial strategy, prepare an opening statement and closing argument, introduce evidence, and examine witnesses. Students consider the role that money may play in mounting an effective defense, the necessity for due process protections, the role of the jury in criminal trials, and the different treatment of white collar crime and street crime in the criminal justice system. Finally, students think critically about the trial process and the ideal of equal justice under the law.

Unit Length: 25 50-minute sessions

Unit Project Description

For their unit project, students role-play prosecutors and defense attorneys bringing a criminal case to trial. Teams prepare for two parallel cases: a state case involving the “street crime” of armed robbery, and a federal case based on the “suite crime” of securities fraud. Each student will play dual roles—a member of a legal team, and a prospective juror or courtroom staffer. In their roles as lawyers, students use witness affidavits and physical evidence to develop a legal strategy, prepare and deliver an opening statement and closing argument, examine witnesses, and introduce exhibits in accordance with the rules of evidence. In their roles as jurors or courtroom staff, students provide support for the alternate trial being held by their classmates. For each trial, students are assessed using the criteria established by the American Bar Association for mock trials. At the conclusion of both trials, students draw on their experiences as lawyers and as jurors or courtroom staff to assess the ways in which the trial process supports or falls short of their personal definition of justice.


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