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March 15, 2004

Deaf students argue case at mock trial

From: The Capital Times - Madison,WI,USA - Mar 15, 2004

By Chuck Nowlen

Hammering hard at a decades-old murder confession, Sara Collins walked coolly through her prosecution team's closing arguments Sunday in a packed Dane County courtroom.

As she concluded, Collins said of defendant James "Dogskin" Johnson, accused of killing 7-year-old Annie Lemberger in Madison 93 years ago: "He had the opportunity to go to the scene, lift the girl out of bed, kill her and dump her in the lake. Ladies and gentlemen, the state has proven here today that there is no reasonable doubt of Mr. Johnson's guilt."

Impressive poise for a high school senior in the semifinals of the State Bar of Wisconsin's annual High School Mock Trial Tournament. Even more impressive, though, is the fact that Collins and her teammates are all deaf and mute.

Using American Sign Language and four interpreters to communicate, they were the first team from Delavan's Wisconsin School for the Deaf ever to compete in the 21-year-old tournament, which drew hundreds of participants and observers to the City-County Building's second-floor courtrooms all day Sunday.

And while Collins and company didn't win - Rhinelander High School and La Crosse Central High School were scheduled to face off in today's final before the Wisconsin Supreme Court - they certainly made believers out of tournament officials.

"The fact that we're making history here today has not been lost on me," Oneida County Circuit Judge Bob Kinney told Collins' team after presiding over the first of their four mock trials Sunday. "And I agree that the quality of your presentation was definitely at the national level."

Added Milwaukee attorney Michael Pollack, who served as one of Kinney's supplemental judges: "This was a difficult case for the prosecution. The skills you showed today are sometimes even difficult for attorneys to master, and you guys did a great job."

Other members of the Wisconsin School for the Deaf team included student-attorneys William Jennison, Terry Stennes and Matt Goeb, all seniors; teacher-coaches Christopher Woodfill and Karen DeFalco; and attorney-coaches Michele LaVigne of the UW-Madison Law School and Chris Haniewicz of Madison's Heller, Ehrman, White and McAuliffe firm.

Wisconsin School for the Deaf finished sixth out of the 15 teams that reached the semifinals Sunday after winning regional competitions in February. Madison Memorial, the only local qualifier, finished 10th.

The teams were scored by real attorneys and judges on their presentation skills, as well as their command of legal principles and procedures.

Wisconsin School for the Deaf teacher-coach Karen DeFalco, meanwhile, called her team's performance "phenomenal."

"This proves that there really are no barriers and that careers in law are definitely possible for deaf people. In fact, the deaf community could use a lot more of them," DeFalco said.

"You have to remember that with most deaf students, English is their second language - sign language is their first - so all the legal terminology was extremely difficult for them at first, yet they learned to use it very skillfully."

Collins, Goeb, Jennison and Stennes are all considering law school after they finish the Washington D.C.-based Gallaudet University, the nation's premier college for the deaf, said DeFalco, who reserved special praise for attorney-coaches Haniewicz and LaVigne.

"We started practicing in September," DeFalco noted, "and the lawyers did most of the teaching work. Michele, in fact, even learned sign language for this."

A total of 264 Wisconsin judges, attorneys and teachers volunteered their time to participate in this year's tournament, State Bar of Wisconsin spokeswoman Beth Drake said. She noted that members of the Wisconsin School for the Deaf squad organized the team themselves, while also lining up their attorney-coaches on their own.

"This is an unusual group of kids who are truly exceptional," Drake said. "And they win for one reason and one reason only: They're excellent; they really are."

Other team members include students Toby Stennes, Eric Waters and Brian Nehls, who served as witnesses during the mock trials.

This year also marked the first time an actual murder case, rather than a contrived one, was used in the competition. Madison's Annie Lemberger murder trial mesmerized the entire nation in 1911, producing more than 10,000 column inches of newspaper copy across the country.

It also inspired Annie Lemberger's nephew, Mark Lemberger, to write the 1993 book "Crime of Magnitude," which concludes that Annie's neighbor James "Dogskin" Johnson did indeed commit the grisly murder, later tossing Annie's bludgeoned body into Lake Monona.

Johnson was convicted of the murder but was freed 10 years later by order of the governor after a key prosecution witness failed a polygraph test - one of the first used in Wisconsin - and admitted she was paid to lie at Johnson's trial.

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