During April's Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a case goes to trial. A girl goes to a bar, meets some friends and at the end of the evening, goes home with an acquaintance. She accuses him of date rape. He says it was consensual. It's up to a jury of their peers to decide.
This is no ordinary courtroom, and no ordinary case. The attorneys, witnesses, plaintiffs and defendants are Hillel activists, in University of Wisconsin-Madison Hillel's Mock Trial.
Beginning two years ago through the Tzedek Hillel Initiative and a Jacob Burns Endowment in Ethics, the Mock Trial program has mounted one case per semester, with a team of students writing the script, finding witnesses, developing biographies and researching the laws of the state of Wisconsin related to the trial. The cases are based on stories taken from the headlines, usually a combination of trials that have taken place recently.
Over the course of trial preparation, the case players hear from "expert witnesses" such as judges, attorneys and rabbis. They discuss the merits of the case, the applicable laws and, in this case in particular, what Judaism has to say about sexual assault. For the alleged date-rape case, the university rape crisis center and university health services presented facts to the group as well.
In addition to date rape, trial themes have included hate crimes, and for World AIDS Day, a mother passing AIDS to her child through breast milk. A local judge or attorney acts as the judge for the mock trial, held in the law school practice courtrooms.
Students "get a lot of experience," said Steinhardt JCSC Fellow Lauren Bloom. "They learn about the laws, and gain an awareness about how things happen on campus. It becomes real to students."
For senior Heather Silverberg, participating in mock trial is a peek into a possible career in law. With each case, she has taken on more of a leadership role. "The cases help students realize the judicial process and what's going on around them," she explained. "The stories could actually happen."
Michael Gelman, a fifth year MD-PhD graduate student and second chair prosecutor for the trial, is able to exercise his thespian side while connecting to the Hillel community. "It's a way to do some social action/justice and build awareness in areas of controversy through thought-provoking discussion," he said. "Students come away saying, 'Wow, I hadn't thought about it that way.'"
Between 50-100 students and community members attend the mock trials each semester. Before the trial begins, members of the audience are selected as members of the jury. Not even the actors know the outcome of the case; it is up to the "mock" attorneys to accurately argue their sides.
"It's exciting because you do not know how it's going to turn out," said Silverberg.
The April 24 Mock Trial is co-sponsored by the UW-Madison Rape Crisis Center, University Health Services, PAVE (Promoting Awareness and Victim Empowerment, MOSA (Men Opposing Sexual Assault), and the Associated Students of Madison Campus Safety Campaign.