Domestic abuse victim Martha Monroe was found guilty of manslaughter last week after 90-minutes of arduous jury deliberation.
Thankfully, the Rim Country Middle School eighth grader, Judy Heller, who played Monroe in the class’ mock trial, returned to school the next day to resume her normal, middle school life.
The classmates in Ted Tatum’s social studies class who decided her fate waged a spirited debate. The students said they found reaching a consensus difficult, especially knowing the decision directly impacted Monroe’s future, according to School Resource Officer David Vaughn.
Student attorneys argued Monroe’s case in the Payson courtroom, and even cleverly asked for the dismissal of Presiding Judge Patti Wortman due to a conflict of interest. Her daughter was a prosecution attorney. In real life, Wortman is an attorney for the county.
In the case, Monroe, a 23-year-old mother of two, murdered her husband after years of abuse after he came home drunk again one night.
“He always blamed me for what was wrong in his life,” read the defendant’s affidavit. “Sometimes the beatings weren’t so bad, just a slap or two, but sometimes they were terrible.”
Monroe said in the affidavit that the beatings worsened as time passed. “He would tie me up and punch me, or lock me in the closet and go out.”
Defense attorneys tried to portray Monroe as a conflicted woman whose emotional scars led her to shoot her husband.
“This is not a murder case, but a victim case,” said one of the defense attorneys.
But ultimately, the prosecution’s argument that Monroe’s faculties were intact enough to avoid killing her husband won.
The jury was hung on charges of first and second-degree murder, but the 15-student jury found Monroe guilty of manslaughter.
Other middle school students played various witnesses, including Brett Royer as Dr. Fran Nilva, an emergency room doctor at Payson Regional Medical Center.
Nilva testified that Monroe had suffered severe beatings, one that could have killed her in which she appeared to have been choked.
Another student witness, Sasha Swartz, played Dr. Pat Bergen, the executive director of the National Center for Women’s Studies. Bergen testified that Monroe suffered from battered woman syndrome.
On the night of the murder, Monroe’s husband arrived home drunk and began complaining so loud that he woke the couple’s two children, who both started crying.
The husband told Monroe that he was going to sleep, but that he would “straighten” her and the kids out when he woke.
Monroe spent the next hour putting her children back to sleep, and finished exhausted.
“I decided I couldn’t go through it anymore,” read her faux voluntary Payson Police Department statement. She saw him lying upstairs, asleep, and got furious.
“He gets everybody riled up and then he goes to sleep,” the statement read. “I’m the one that has to handle everything in the house, with the kids and all, and he just messes things up and then takes a nap. I got furious. I realized that he was never going to change, and that the best thing to do would be to end it.”
So she got the gun and shot him.
Vaughn said students learn analytical and critical thinking skills from participating in the trial. Students can also learn how to become responsible members of the community, he said.
“They can look at both sides of an issue and come up with a decision and a behavior instead of an emotional response,” said Vaughn.
High school students have a mock trial club, and Vaughn said he wants to start one at the middle school as well.
In fourth grade, students begin the curriculum by playing out scripted trials. The eighth graders were responsible for crafting their own opening and closing arguments and building their cases.
“I don’t want to say it’s intense,” said Vaughn, “but it requires some students to do in-depth homework.”
The students, however love it. “That’s all these kids have been talking about these past two weeks.”