Student mock trial returns two guilty verdicts

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The thirteenth annual reenactment of a landmark groundwater trial by the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Science’s hydrogeology class led to guilty (liable) verdicts in two separate trials.

Each year, department chair Bill Simpkins’ class reenacts the 1986 trial that became a book and motion picture titled, “A Civil Action.” In the real-life drama, some Woburn, Massachusetts residents accused three companies of polluting the groundwater drawn into city wells that supplied drinking water for the town. The contaminated water, they alleged, led to cancer and then death for local children.

The class trial reinforces hydrogeology concepts by allowing students to play the roles of lawyers, witnesses, and geologic and hydrologic experts.

According to Simpkins, the trial is a great learning experience and a great team-building exercise.

There is no script for the trial. Students in the class learn basic trial procedure, then prepare a case to sway a jury of ISU students to a desired verdict. “Judge” Witt, a hydrogeology graduate student and teaching assistant in the course, helps maintain order and function of the trial.

Students enjoy acting their part in the trial proceedings, dressing the part and bolstering their performance with artificial emotions; even tears. However, tense moments of the trial are often relieved by performance “bloopers.”

A few other universities also reenact the trial, but Simpkins designs his version as a capstone event for an upper-level hydrogeology course, which requires solid knowledge of the science.

For the second year, two trials were necessary to accommodate the large enrollment of 32 students in the course. Trial 1, with a jury composed of Geology 100 students, ruled unanimously for the plaintiffs. Trial 2’s jury, composed mostly of engineers in Geology 201, found for the plaintiffs, but only by a majority vote.

The difference in juries meant a different way of evaluating nearly the same evidence. The first jury featured students from many non-science majors and based its verdict on emotion. The engineering students in the second trial based their verdict on an evaluation of the science.”

After 15 trials over the years, the plaintiffs now lead the defendants 10.5 to 4.5 (last year’s teams were each awarded a half point for a hung jury in Trial 1). In the actual trial 29 years ago, the parties settled out of court.