La Cañada middle schoolers grill Ninth Circuit judges

On Nov. 23, 1989, Arizona drug dealer Eric Owen Mann shot and killed two men who came to his home to purchase cocaine. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to die.

On Nov. 7, nearly 23 years after the crime, 40 La Cañada High School 7/8 history students witnessed the American legal system wrestle with Mann’s fate. Judges and attorneys argued whether Mann, who has been on death row since 1995, should receive a reprieve from the death penalty.

The trip to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena was a revealing look at the justice system, but La Cañada High 7/8 parent Guy Iversen said it was more.

“This is constitutional law being made before their eyes,” said Iversen, a supervising attorney for the Office of the Federal Defender in Los Angeles and a lecturer at the UCLA School of Law.

Iversen helped start the Court of Appeals field trip program last year with 7/8 history teacher Dan Yoder and assistant principal Jim Cartnal, and hopes it will inspire some students to choose a career in the law.

The students did much more than merely watch a panel of three judges hear attorneys for Mann and the state of Arizona argue their cases. Afterwards, they met with the attorneys, legal clerks and Ninth Circuit judges Alex Kozinski, Stephen Reinhardt and Sidney Thomas — the three who will decide the case — to ask questions.

One student asked how the judges balance their personal viewpoints and feelings with the making an appropriate judicial decision. Another student, whose parent is an anesthesiologist, asked how a doctor who has taken the Hippocratic oath could help administer a lethal cocktail of drugs to someone sentenced to die.

“The kids asked a lot of robust and interesting questions,” Iversen said.

Prior to the field trip, the teachers and Iversen talked to the students about the case and explained legal concepts and terminology.

“They can track the argument much better … when they know what to expect,” Iversen said.

If the court’s opinion is issued prior to the end of the school year, Cartnal, Yoder and Iversen will conduct another class discussion on the outcome.

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