A case of fraud, embezzlement and murder was heard last week at the Kenai court house.
No, it’s not the story of the year on the Kenai. It was a mock trial for the senior class at Nikiski High School to get a look at some of the basic mechanisms of the criminal justice system in the case of the state of Oregon v. Freeman.
So, this is actually a widely-used mock trial case from Lewis and Clark Law School in Oregon. But, just as in a real case, the prosecution and defense called witnesses, cross-examined them, tried to persuade the judge on various points and in the end, left it all up to a jury of Freeman’s peers.
The state, represented by Melanie Sexton and Jaime Yerkes, argued it was Freeman who killed Devon Frost. Frost was found dead in the cooler of her restaurant where Freeman worked, and it was known that Frost had been skimming money off the till to pay off her gambling debts.
The defense for Freeman would counter that in fact he was an unfortunate victim of circumstance and it was the mob that was responsible.
But complicating things was the victim’s insurance policy. The benefactor of which was the defendant, to the tune of half a million dollars.
Complicating things further: bacon. The victim tried to spell something out in bacon as she froze to death in that restaurant cooler. Was it her killer’s name? This one prompted a visit to the bench and some clarification from the acting judge in the case, local attorney Peter Ehrhardt.
Witnesses offered testimony that was shaky at times, but this all about learning the process. So, what did those legal teams learn?
“It was playful at school. Then we’re here and it’s kind of like we stepped out of our role as students and into a role into an attorney and became lawyers. It became more real for us, but a play thing for them (the witnesses). But to us, we wanted to win. Either side wanted to get our answers out, we wanted to get our opinions out," said Chloe Grogan, one of the defense attorneys.
And did either side convince the judge?
“I thought the prosecution had an easier time of it," Ehrhardt said.
"The defense is always a little bit harder. It’s fun to have an opportunity to have kids be enthusiastic about it. I love it, too, when they finally figure out they can make objections and they lose the objection and then they’re mad."
And so, after the jury deliberated for an hour and a half back in the classroom, they found the defendant, Willy Freeman, well, nothing. It was a hung jury, with 8 of 12 calling for a verdict of guilty. Which isn’t all that uncommon, really. Mock trials in classrooms all over the country come to different conclusions in the state of Orgegon v. Freeman, and that’s part of the fun.