In Courtroom Class, Lawyers Are On Trial

Posted: December 23, 1990

The defendant: Arnold Decker. The plaintiff: The state of New Jersey.

Decker is being charged with conspiracy, attempted robbery and felony murder. He is the accused getaway driver in the armed robbery of a local bank, which left a guard - who was only referred to as Canine - dead.

Those were the facts that Judge Robin D. Buser heard as defense attorneys David Benson and Chris Fletcher and prosecutors Deanna Buchborn and Desiree Landrum presented their cases.

For Benson, Fletcher, Buchborn and Landrum, there was more at stake than a jury's verdict. They were more concerned with what Mark S. Guralnick thought of their performances.

It was not Decker's future on the line, but the futures of the attorneys.

They were students involved earlier this month in a mock trial at the Edgewater Park Municipal Court. And they were worried about their grades.

Guralnick, a lawyer and an instructor at the Camden campus of Rutgers University, watched and took notes as his undergraduate students tried to apply the rules he taught during a political-science class on the judicial process. The courtroom performance would make up 25 percent of their final grades.

Buser - not really a judge, but a Mount Laurel lawyer - lent a helping hand by donating his time to Guralnick so that the students could get a real feeling of what it is like to be in court. That, along with Edgewater Park officials allowing the class to take over the courtroom for a day, added to the effect.

If anyone had walked into the courtroom that afternoon, it would have taken a few seconds to realize that the trial wasn't the real thing.

Maybe the occasional outbursts of laughter would have given it away, or the witnesses who subbed as members of the jury. It could have been the judge acting as bailiff - promising in, rather than swearing in, the witnesses.

Four of the 14 trials Guralnick invented were presented in Edgewater Park. The others were done at the university's law school in Camden.

Some of the other cases involved child custody and wrongful death. Guralnick said the wrongful-death case involved a "pizza man who didn't make it in 30 minutes or less."

The cases were developed to see how well the students could put theories into practice. Guralnick said he enjoyed allowing the students to take part in the experiment because until they were actually in a courtroom before a judge presenting a case, they would never really know what it was like being a lawyer.

"It takes a lot of preparation," said Landrum, a junior from Marlton. ''Our teacher has always told us that you can never be prepared enough. And I think that that's so true.

"He said if you think you're 100 percent prepared, then go for 110 percent."

Landrum said there was no way of knowing when an objection would be sustained or overruled or just how prepared the other side would be.

Buchborn, a senior from Cherry Hill, said the experiment solidified her career choice.

"I went from being nervous and wondering if I want to be a lawyer to realizing that I really do want to go to law school," Buchborn said. "It really showed us what being a lawyer is all about."

The jury came back with a guilty verdict - not that anyone really cared.

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