Eighth graders hold mock trial: Jefferson Davis found not guilty

May. 24, 2011

BELMAR — Resounding applause came when St. Rose Elementary eighth graders found Jefferson Davis not guilty of treason in the school’s annual mock trial event Monday at the Belmar municipal courthouse on Main Street.

Three member prosecution and defense attorneys argued whether or not the Confederate States of America president’s actions violated constitutional law.

“You will have to rely on your personal expertise, good judgment and common sense in all these matters,” social studies teacher Sean McDonald, who portrayed the judge, told the 16-member jury headed by Kevin Poppert, 14, of Belmar.

In her opening statements, head prosecutor Tylar Wengiel, 13, of Neptune, said when a man leads a rebellion or takes up arms against his own country he is guilty of treason. But lead defense attorney Sarah Rogers, 14, also of Neptune, argued that the mere act of heading the seceded union proved Davis did not act against the law.

Exhibits to support their arguments included the constitutional definition of treason and letters between Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Damaging testimony came from prosecution witnesses Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy; U.S. Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton; and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — portrayed respectively by 14-year-olds David Kundats of Wall, Ryan Scharfenberg and Brendan Corrigan, both of Neptune.

In his testimony, Stephens described Davis as a “weak, timid aspirant that wanted military domination.” He and Lee testified that it was not their wish to secede from the United States.

The defense, however, found strength in testimony brought forth by its witness Dr. John Joseph Cravens, portrayed by Anna Weeden, 13, of Interlaken, who said imprisonment conditions violated Davis’ civil liberties.

Another strength came when defense attorney Matt Hunt, 14, of Wall, argued that the north’s willingness to trade prisoners was acknowledgment that the confederate union was a separate nation and therefore Davis’ actions could not be construed as treason.

But prosecuting attorney Sanam Parikh, 13, of Wall, contended that the trading of prisoners did not imply recognition of a separate nation but simply a want by family members to have their husbands and fathers back.

Other defense witnesses included Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, portrayed by Jack Cavanaugh, 14, of Belmar, and Davis himself, portrayed by Carlo Fiducia, 14, of Long Branch.

The Tenth Amendment, stating laws not addressed at the federal level fall under the states’ jurisdiction and photos of Davis’ prison cell were a part of the defense exhibits.

In his closing arguments, defense attorney Peter Davis, 14, of Neptune City, said the north broke the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, thereby giving the South good reason to secede.

While the original case against Davis never saw trial, McDonald said he tries each year to pick a controversial case that will give both sides a fair chance of winning.

“My main objective is for all the students to develop an appreciation for the Constitution and become more learned about the workings of the judicial system,” McDonald said.

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