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Government Day gives students a taste of the judicial system

MORRIS – Barb Hammered was found “guilty” Tuesday of driving under the influence by a jury made up of fourth- through eighth-graders.

Hammered was arrested during a traffic stop in Minooka where she was pulled over for traveling 55 mph in a 40 mph zone on Ridge Road. The arresting officer noticed an odor of alcohol, and Hammered refused field sobriety tests, as well as a breathalyzer.

This was the scenario for a mock trial held with students who participated in this year’s University of Illinois Extension Government Day. The mock trial was held in Judge Robert Marsaglia’s second floor courtroom at the Grundy County Courthouse.

Grundy County students between fourth and eighth grades were able to submit essays about a government position held at the county level that they are interested in for a chance to be chosen to shadow the official who holds that position.

Those that chose courthouse jobs were given a tour of their respective offices by their government sponsor, who showed them what the job entails before the students met in the courtroom. 

Karla Valencia, a seventh-grade student at Saratoga School in Morris, said she chose the state’s attorney office because she wanted to learn more about how they practice law.

Logan Daggett, a seventh-grade Mazon Verona Kinsman student, said he has met Grundy County State’s Attorney Jason Helland during a case and became interested in what he does.

“I wanted to go to the state’s attorney’s office because he helped get a search warrant to get my dog back and he told me about what he does,” Daggett said.

Helland said Daggett’s dog had been taken and it was reportedly seen at a house near the Daggett home. When the sheriff’s office responded, the people claimed they didn’t have the dog so a search warrant was issued and the dog was found and returned, and charges of theft of property were made against those who had possession of the dog.

“Unless they’ve had contact with us, they don’t know what we do,” Helland said. “It’s great to educate them. We want them at a young age to be interested in the law.”

Seven students acted as jury, while the three students chosen to follow the judge were seated with Judge Marsaglia, and other students were seated in their respective positions at the state’s attorney’s table and at the clerk’s desk.

Helland argued as a defense attorney against another member of his office who took his place as state’s attorney.

As the defense, Helland claimed, that despite the fact there was an odor of alcohol in the car and that his client admitted to having a couple of beers and her eyes were bloodshot, that she was not guilty of the DUI. He explained her eyes were bloodshot, because she works as a swimsuit model and could have just been leaving a chlorinated pool, and she was unable to perform the field sobriety test, because she was wearing flip flops which affected her walking.

Despite the defense’s explanation of the arrest, the jury still found Hammered guilty of DUI.

Valencia said she found the defendant guilty, because she changed her story about how many beers she drank.

“I found her guilty, because if she was a swimsuit model, she’d have experience walking in flip flops so that wouldn’t affect her,” Daggett said.

Marsaglia said he doesn’t think kids are ever too young to see how the system works.

Grundy County Clerk Lana Phillips said she’s been participating in Government Day for many years in her role as clerk.

“They get a feel for county government,” Phillips said. “It instills in them a sense of what we have to do for our constituents.”

The activity enables students to experience county government first-hand and has reached more than 22,000 Grundy County students during its 35-year history. 

“The program was started to try to expose youth to local government jobs,” Brooke Baker of the extension office said. “It’s good for the students to have the opportunity available to see what government jobs are available if they stay in the community.”

This annual 4-H youth program was first held in October 1978, with 502 students from five schools writing essays for 19 county official positions. In subsequent years, positions were added to include other governmental officials, expanding the program.

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