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North Las Vegas students acquit their peer of wrongdoing

A local fifth-grader was acquitted by a jury of his peers on a charge of malicious destruction of property.

CP Squires Elementary School, 1312 E. Tonopah Ave., fifth-grader Andrew Cepeda was found not guilty of vandalizing his classmate’s bike. The plaintiff, Marlen Lopez, accused Andrew of spraying red paint on her gray bicycle after school last month.

The jury, with a combined age of 120, delivered the verdict to a packed courtroom of students, who erupted in applause.

Chief Judge Natalie Tyrrell presided over the mock trial April 5 at the North Las Vegas Justice Court, 2428 N. Martin Luther King Blvd.

The case was part of Kids in the Court, now in its 10th year.

“I wanted to do a program that benefited both the community and the youth,” Tyrrell said. “I wanted to create a program that introduced kids to the judicial system, with an emphasis on staying in school and making good choices.

“I think it’s really important to have an impact on kids before they get in trouble, before they get into the system.

“I want to get them interested in the criminal justice system as a career and not be on the wrong side of it.”

Every Squires fifth-grader takes part in the program. The first step involves Tyrrell, her bailiff and judicial executive assistant visiting the school to give a presentation.

They talk about their careers and their educational background.

The school then takes students on field trips to the court for a half-hour trial and a tour of the facilities. Students get to see the judge’s chambers and the inmate holding cells.

The trial itself is played straight. The plaintiff and defendant are represented by two criminal defense attorneys, Yvette Maningo and Jeanne Hua, who volunteer their time.

The plaintiff, Marlen in this case, is sworn in and testifies about the case. Andrew’s attorney advises him to exercise his Fifth Amendment right and not incriminate himself.

The other witness called to the stand is Inspector Michelle Gadget, played by bailiff Alberto Coman.

“Inspector Gadget” was a television show that went off the air in the ’90s, but the kids appreciate the reference.

The fictional trial is based on an actual fact pattern from a previous case, Tyrrell said.

The participants are chosen by teachers, and they are briefed about the case in private before the trial begins.

Tyrrell said the jury members are not influenced on how to vote, and they often come to a different verdict every year.

Students this year were treated to an electrifying demonstration after the trial by bailiff Ron Wright.

He promised the week before that if they were good, he’d demonstrate the stun gun for them.

They didn’t forget.

Before the trial started, Wright explained the rules of the court and asked if anyone had questions.

One student raised his hand.

“When do we get to see the Taser?”

Tyrrell chose fifth-graders for the program because they’re moving up to middle school next year.

“They’ll be the new kids on the block,” Tyrrell said. “There will be a lot of pressure that they’re going to have to deal with, and we want them to stay out of trouble.”

She said she’d like to expand the program to other nearby elementary schools, but transportation costs have been the biggest obstacle when she approached principals with the idea.

Squires receives funding from a donor that enables the program to continue, but even it the school didn’t, principal Marci McDonald said she’d find a way to keep it going.

“The kids love it,” McDonald said. “It’s a great program, and we’d find a way to get them to them to the courthouse.”

In the lobby, curious students interacted with the bailiffs and asked to take pictures with them. Two girls begged Inspector Gadget to handcuff them together — which he did and seemingly made their day.

Students, sad to be released from the courthouse, loaded onto bus es and headed back to school.

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at jmosier@viewnews.com or 224-5524.

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