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Mock trial sets Peterson free

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, October 4, 2014
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The students at Alvord High School now were first graders, kindergarteners and younger when Laci Peterson, eight months pregnant, went missing on Christmas Eve 2002.

But today, many of them know a lot about the high-profile murder case that captivated the country and put Laci’s husband, Scott Peterson, on California’s death row.

Tuesday, they tried the case again – and this time, Peterson went free.

Courtroom Drama

COURTROOM DRAMA – Cody Peterson (right) questions Lauren Yzaguirre during Tuesday’s re-enactment of the Scott Peterson murder trial as Judge Jennifer Peek and court reporter Joe Randall look on. Peterson played the role of defense attorney Mark Geragos, and Yzaguirre played forensic investigator Lauren Benson. Most of the students who participated are in Peek’s forensic science class. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

“I can tell you, it was very divided,” said jury foreman Dustin Haire after the verdict was announced. “We were completely split down the middle. The main argument for the not-guilty decision was that we didn’t feel like there was enough evidence presented. That was basically what it came down to.”

Haire said the 12 jury members were not in Jennifer Peek’s forensic science class, which staged the trial as a class project.

But the effort was “truly cross-curricular” according to AHS Principal Dr. Rhett King, involving Peek’s students as well as Mary Byrd’s theatre arts class, Deann Stark’s journalism students, DeAnn Nivens’ photography class and others from the student body.

Defendant

DEFENDANT – AHS student Austin Hudnell (center) studied Scott Peterson’s mannerisms and attitude to prepare himself for the role. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

Tuesday’s trial, which started at 1 p.m., was held in the gym because the library wouldn’t hold everyone. A brief intermission at the halfway point allowed classes in the gallery to change – but throughout the trial, students sat deathly quiet in the bleachers while testimony echoed in the rafters.

“We’ve been working on this about two weeks,” Peek said. “What started this is that a couple of kids got to debating on this Peterson case, because he was convicted on very little actual evidence. It was mostly circumstantial.

“They wanted to have a debate, and I thought instead of that, we would do it in the guise of a mock trial.”

Byrd worked with the actors on staying in character – starting with avoiding the urge to giggle at inappropriate times.

“Austin [Hudnell, who played Peterson] has studied videos of Peterson himself, trying to mimic his mannerisms, his attitude,” she said. “He did a spot-on job with that.”

Prosecuting attorney was Coleton Rangel, assisted by Kayli Baker. Both dressed for court and took turns questioning witnesses.

Cody Peterson – no relation – defended Scott Peterson, with assistance from Kegan Branum, who didn’t question any witnesses but did talk a little smack to the prosecution after the verdict was announced.

A robed Mrs. Peek presided as judge while School Resource Officer Eliyah Payne of the Wise County Sheriff’s Office acted as bailiff, escorting a handcuffed Hudnell into the courtroom and swearing in witnesses.

Up in the stands, Wise County Attorney James Stainton watched the trial unfold. Stainton came to Alvord last week and worked with the class.

“I spent about an hour just going over procedures,” he said. “Everybody’s put a lot of work into it. For a first run, it’s terrific.”

Stainton said the back-and-forth between lawyers and witnesses was not scripted, but questions were based on depositions. Peek said having a legal adviser was a big help.

“Court procedure isn’t a strong point, necessarily, of our class – but we’re learning as we go,” she noted.

The state’s witnesses included Kenny Dunaway as the police chief, Brianna Ponder as Laci Peterson’s OB/GYN, Matilyn Buckaloo as the chief forensic investigator and Blake Haire and Lauren Yzaguirre as assistant forensic investigators.

Makayla Perry played the medical examiner, while Caleb Rodriguez portrayed a pawn dealer. Kory Maag played Laci’s brother and Kylee McPherson was Laci’s half-sister. Sarina McKinnon portrayed Scott Peterson’s sister and Katie Claiborn played Amber Frey – the woman with whom Peterson cheated on his wife, who taped a conversation as investigators sought to capture a confession.

Clara Breashears and Josh Andresen were witnesses for the defense. They jury was given 15 minutes to come up with a verdict.

Stark said her journalism students looked at the trial from two different angles.

“One is Alvord High School putting this together,” she said. “Then another, as a news story. It’s quite different than just reading it in the textbook.”

Peek said her forensics class always studies the Peterson case anyway. Conducting the trial themselves gave them an opportunity to actually live it.

Rangel, in his closing statement, said Peterson was “tired of married life.” He described the method of the murder, Peterson’s disposal of his wife’s body and cleaning up the crime scene.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a common-sense case,” he said. “All I ask is that you see Mr. Peterson as he truly is and find him guilty of the brutal murder of a soon-to-be mother, sister, friend and wife, Laci Peterson.”

Peterson’s closing statement focused on the lack of physical evidence.

“Every piece of evidence presented in this case has been circumstantial,” he said. “He loved his wife and had no reason to kill her.

“But whether you believe he did it or not, you can’t deny the fact that there is no evidence in this case. They never found a crime scene, they never found a murder weapon, they never found any DNA tying Scott Peterson to this case. All of this is just accusations and circumstantial evidence.”

When the jury delivered its verdict, cheers echoed through the gym where crowds usually gather for volleyball and basketball games. Officer Payne took off the cuffs, and Hudnell raised his hands in triumph.

The real Scott Peterson still sits in prison, his case having been appealed to the California Supreme Court. He awaits wheels of justice that turn a great deal more slowly than those of the classroom.

It’s entirely possible these AHS students may have kids of their own in school by the time there’s a final verdict.

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