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Characters, courtrooms and lots of arguing

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After a day of practicing law, attorney Susan Roberts often returned home, sat down at her computer and created a legal world where the witnesses say exactly what she wants them to say.

Her characters are fascinating and often humorous individuals with names that match, such as Gail Storm, captain of a charter boat, and Dee D. Tee, a pest control expert. She puts them in the middle of courtroom battles that include expert witnesses, exhibits and legal precedent.

roberts-15col.jpg Susan Roberts prepares binders for the judges of the National High School Mock Trial Championship coming to Indiana. Roberts wrote the case to be used in the competition. (IL photo/Marilyn Odendahl)

For nearly 20 years, Roberts has sat in the glow of her computer not to create bestsellers but to write the cases that students argue in the Indiana Mock Trial competition. Her goal is to craft interesting works that let the students enjoy themselves while they learn about the American judicial system.

“It’s rewarding to me when I see what the students do with the words I write,” Roberts, of counsel at Stuart & Branigin in Lafayette, said. “They bring the characters to life and bring out the different angles.”

Her writing has been so successful that other states have used her cases in their mock trial competitions. And this year, her skills are in the national spotlight. She wrote the case that will be tried during the National High School Mock Trial Championship coming to Indianapolis in May.

Roberts never dreamed of becoming a writer. She studied accounting as an undergraduate and as an attorney her practice has focused on finance, bankruptcy and creditors rights.

However, when she became involved in mock trial, she realized she could write a better case than the ones typically offered. Over the years she has written cases that have drawn upon history – the trial of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a suspected conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln – as well as modern day happenings like sniper shootings and bed bug bites.

Students, parents, mock team coaches, attorneys and judges have all praised Roberts’ cases. But she is most thrilled watching the students display their knowledge of the law as well as their skills at public speaking and critical thinking.

“You know you’re making a difference,” Roberts said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

A case they can argue

Mock trial gives high school and middle school students the opportunity to learn by preparing and presenting a court case. Students read through caselaw, learn legal procedure and practice endlessly all in preparation to present their side of the facts before a judge just as any lawyer would do in a real litigation.

“The case is the competition,” said Scott Keller, attorney at Anderson Agostino & Keller P.C. in South Bend and member of the Indiana Mock Trial board of directors.

And balance is the key factor. Each side has to have equal amounts of strengths and weaknesses so the students have something to argue, because the competition is not about getting a favorable jury verdict but about the arguments they make.

“Her cases are always very well done,” Keller said. “We get very few complaints from lawyers reading the cases.”

Roberts pays particular attention to giving her cases depth and multiple angles which give the students plenty to work on as they prepare for competition. She does this not only so students will not get bored, but also so the more they study and the more they pay attention, the more they will find.

She is adept at hiding a contradiction or slipping in a twist that won’t be found until the students have thoroughly gotten to know the incident, the facts, the caselaw and the characters.

Every year, Roberts begins with research. Lots and lots of reading, studying and investigating every aspect of her case, every detail, every diversion because she wants everything in her case to be plausible and true to life.

When the writing starts, she will write multiple documents including six witness statements, three for each side; the complaint or indictment; and an answer to the complaint or counterclaim. In addition, she establishes the stipulations and she cites applicable law with references to precedent cases as well as Indiana and U.S. code.

Roberts does not shy away from complex legal concepts in her cases. For example, the 2012-2013 case, Dog Bite at a Dog Show, did not treat the matter as a typical television courtroom drama would with the issue being simplified to the question of whether the dog actually bit. But rather, Roberts had the students focusing on the true legal matter of whether the defendants knew or should have known their dog had violent propensities.

Negligence, murder versus manslaughter, First Amendment rights, wrongful death and product liability have all been spotlighted in her cases.

Studying and then arguing Roberts’ cases in mock trial competition helped Andrew Jones ace his trial practice class in law school. As a student at Adams High School in South Bend, he participated on the mock trial team for three years and is now at team coach at his alma mater.

Like Keller, Jones, an attorney at Sweeney Julian P.C. in South Bend, said mock trial cases must be balanced with no side having an unfair advantage. Another key element to a good case is fun characters. Interesting, multifaceted witnesses and experts allow the students to be creative.

“Having good characters written into the case is very important,” Jones said. “Susan nails it. She nails it every time.”

Jones remembered one of Roberts’ cases he tried as a student competitor involving a house fire and the insurance company accusing the homeowner of arson. The insurance inspector was the persnickety and obsessive Terry Part, who had wanted to be a police officer but failed the drug test.

“Now that I am a personal injury attorney, I really appreciate that character,” Jones said, chuckling.

Tragedy and a car race

For Indiana’s turn on the national mock trial stage, Roberts wanted a case that drew upon the history and culture of the state. She crafted a piece that combined Indiana’s worst tragedy, the 1963 Coliseum Explosion in Indianapolis, and its most famous event, the Indianapolis 500.

Roberts’ case revolves around an explosion of a propane tank on a popcorn warmer, similar to what happened 50 years ago. However, hers takes place before the crowds arrive in a theater where a play about the 500’s inaugural race is being staged. The play is called “The Wasp,” in reference to the winner Ray Harroun and his race car, the “Marmon Wasp.”

Following the blast which destroyed the building, the theater company files a lawsuit against the propane vendor, claiming the vendor was negligent in maintaining and inspecting the tanks and in failing to instruct the theater in the proper operation and of the safety risks of the tanks.

Still, this is Roberts’ case so there are plenty of suspicions. Maybe the theater employee, Joe Kerr, played a prank that got out of hand, or possibly the disgruntled former theater co-owner, Dee Part, engaged in sabotage. What about the theater owner, Mel Low? Did he ignore safety precautions in order to arrange the theater according to the principles of feng shui?

After the national competition, Roberts plans to return to writing cases for the state competition. She laughed and said her husband has been encouraging her to turn her skills into a novel, but that project may have to wait. She is already thinking about possibilities for next year’s case.•

 

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Volunteers needed for national competition
 

For the first time in high school mock trial history, Indiana is hosting the national competition. High school students, along with attorneys, teachers and judges from across the country, will come to Indianapolis to test their litigation skills.

The National High School Mock Trial Championship is May 9 through May 11. Marion County is providing 25 of its courtrooms for two rounds of the competition. The championship round will be held in Judge Sarah Evans Barker’s courtroom in the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.

About 46 mock trial state championship teams are expected to travel to Indiana for the nationals. In addition to arguing and examining witnesses, the students will be treated to some Hoosier fun while they are here. Receptions are planned at the Indiana State Museum and the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center. Students will also be treated to a baseball game at Victory Field watching the Indianapolis Indians take on the Toledo Mud Hens.

Volunteers are still needed for the national competition. Competition organizers want to have 100 volunteers for each of the three rounds to preside over the mock trials, to score the students, and to act as the bailiff. Attorneys, paralegals, judges, and law students interested in donating their time are asked to visit the Indiana Mock Trial homepage at www.inmocktrial.org. Click on the 2013 National button and select the link for “Sign-up for Judging Panel Volunteers and Other Volunteers.”•
 

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  1. Am I the only one who sees that the City is essentially giving away the MSA site AND giving millions to build new buildings on the site when this site would be the perfect place for the Justice Complex? Across from City-County, check; keeping it centrally located, check, etc. It's my understanding that the GM site must be purchased by the City from Motors Liquidation Company. STOP WASTING WHAT WE ALREADY HAVE AND OUR TAX DOLLARS! The Ballard Administration has not been known for it's common sense...never voted for him and never will!

  2. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  3. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  4. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  5. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

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