OKLAHOMA CITY — Does a tragic death mean murder? A cold, dead body; blood on an aspirin bottle; a suspicious computer search history — these are the facts, Dove Science Academy Oklahoma City freshman had to consider as part of a brand new forensic science course. A mock trial at the end of the semester tied together science, investigation procedures, legal methods and theories while teaching students what it means to find justice and forcing them to consider that tragedy does not guarantee conviction.
From filing search warrants to collecting evidence to recording and analyzing testimonies, students, a.k.a. “Dove Science Academy Police Department,” searched for answers in the untimely death of Fletcher D. Bear, a “student” and stuffed animal with a bright future cut short. With only the knowledge that Bear was rushed to a hospital after ingesting a toxic amount of aspirin, students had to piece together a puzzle that led them to file a First Degree Murder case against Jason Mack, defendant and dean of discipline.
While many high school curriculums introduce the legal field to students with basic courtroom concepts, DSA integrated forensic science into the learning experience, such that multiple facets of equity and legality were examined, and the process went all the way from crime to verdict.
Mike Fugate, DSA teacher, without previous legal experience, put together the successful forensic science course at the request of Principal Yunus Bicici. Beginning from scratch, Fugate relied on connections he had with legal professionals through his church. With a lot of hard work, Fugate said he thought the course was successful.
“A lot of people helped me — Judge Bass, Mr. Henderson, Judge Gurich, the Oklahoma Department of Narcotics, and I couldn’t have done it without the best bunch of young people I’ve seen throughout my career. Kudos to Dove Science Academy,” Fugate said.
Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Noma Gurich, who has lots of experience with student and adult mock trials, said she was very impressed with Dove Science Academy.
“What Dove has done here is very unique. I don’t know of another program that teaches students about the justice system by way of science. From what I’ve seen, it’s exposed students to critical thinking and required them to reconcile scientific data with legal theories and rules as do real professionals,” Gurich said.
Students gained this invaluable experience with the guidance of legal professionals, including Gurich, Oklahoma County Retired Judge Jerry Bass, ACLU Oklahoma Legal Director Brady Henderson and medical professionals, such as Oklahoma State Medical Examiner Forensic Toxicologist Chelsea Fort.
During the mock trial, Gurich served as the courtroom judge while Bass acted as state prosecutor and Henderson defended Mack.
To prepare students for the mock trial, Bass, Gurich and Henderson visited DSA campus regularly and spoke about the legal elements of the case and how students would translate that to a successful trial.
“I think it’s [a mock trial] the best thing we can do to teach citizenship. In this country, I don’t think we spend enough emphasis on what we have in comparison to the rest of the world,” Gurich said. “Part of being a good citizen, in this country, is not only serving in the military if you decide that’s where you want to go, but serving on juries is part of citizenship.
“Voting is so important, and I think when people participate in the court system, they understand why we care so much about this – why we fight foreign wars; why we take time out of our business life and our education life and our busy life to serve on juries and to go vote and to run as a candidate. This is the best public education that we can do. I only wish we could get everyone to participate in some sort of mock trial situation or actually serve on a jury.”
To prove Mack was guilty of murder, students theorized he gave Bear two aspirin; a lethal dose for the stuffed animal’s size. They collected evidence of an aspirin bottle, 911 call, fingerprints, computer search history and more.
“It’s been exciting getting to interact with a real judge and prosecuting attorneys. We’ve gotten to experience what it is to be a real forensic scientist. We’ve seen the reality. It’s not like TV at all. There’s more paperwork. It takes much longer to do everything. And recording everything is so important; the chain of custody log, the photo log, without it, everything can be ruled inadmissible,” said Juliet Ignacio, DSA student and “chief of police.”
Throughout the forensic science class, Henderson said he was impressed with Dove Science Academy students for their ability to ask insightful questions.
“To me that’s what makes a really great young high school student. It isn’t necessarily everything that student knows, it’s the questions they ask and how they engage with people. I’m just really glad for the opportunity to come and be a part of showing them a different experience,” Henderson said.
At the conclusion of the mock trial, many students no longer thought Mack should be convicted of First Degree Murder and instead convicted of a lesser offense of either Second Degree Murder or Manslaughter. Their perceptions of burden of proof, particularly that of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” had shifted and their idea of justice was no longer dictated by the simple pleasure of “convicting” a favorite teacher.
“This was tough. The defense, Mr. Henderson, had a strong argument,” Ignacio said. “I was nervous because I’m the chief of police, and I had to show all of the evidence we had all collected. There are definitely some things I would change. But I think the evidence built a strong case against Mr. Mack,” Ignacio reflected on her experience.
Gurich explained that while everyone has a sense of right and wrong, a court system does not and cannot make people whole again and that through the forensic science class, students learned justice is the process that ensures everyone has an equal shot.
“Right or wrong is not justice. Justice is a process. Justice means that you have been guaranteed certain presumptions and certain protections by our US Constitution and our Oklahoma Constitution,” she said. “And I think that whether there is a finding in a criminal case of guilt or innocence is not a measure of justice. The measure of justice is: What was the process? Was there in integrity in the process? Does everyone stand equally in front of the law — whether you’re poor or rich or black or white or anything else?”
To learn more about Dove Science Academy, see dsaokc.org.
About Dove Public Charter Schools
Serving students for 15 years, Dove Public Charter Schools promote disciplined, organized and vigorous education. The faculty and staff at each of our four campuses (Dove Science Academy Elementary; Dove Science Academy OKC; Dove Science Academy Tulsa; and Discovery School of Tulsa) work diligently to mold responsive, productive and civic-minded individuals. With a 1:15 faculty-student ratio, our schools offer a “hands-on approach” that allows for individual focus and created students who are a productive part of the community. Dove Public Charter Schools are run by the charitable non-profit organization Sky Foundation, which promotes STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in every school environment. To learn more about us, see doveschools.org or follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/dovepubliccharterschools.
forensic science (1).jpg: Dove Science Academy students search Jason Mack's, dean of discipline, office during a "murder" investigation. As part of a new forensic science course taught at the high school in Oklahoma City, students have learned about the legal and scientific aspects necessary to solve crimes.
forensic science (3).jpg: Brady Henderson, ACLU Oklahoma legal director, center, addresses the Dove Science Academy “court” to defend his client Jason Mack, dean of discipline, right, who was charged with the murder of a student as part of a forensic science class and mock trial.
forensic science (5).jpg: Dove Science Academy (DSA) Oklahoma City “court” is called to session for its first mock trial. In a search for justice, leaders in the legal profession, such as retired Oklahoma County Judge Jerry Bass, left, and ACLU Oklahoma Legal Director Brady Henderson, right, worked with DSA OKC students to prosecute alleged murder Jason Mack.
forensic science (7).jpg: Retired Oklahoma County Judge Jerry Bass, center, gives an opening statement while Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Noma Gurich, left, and Juliet Ignacio, Dove Science Academy student and “chief of police,” right, listen intently during the Oklahoma City high school’s first mock trial.
forensic science (10).jpg: Retired Oklahoma County Judge Jerry Bass, right, questions a Dove Science Academy Police Department “officer” about photos she took during the high school’s first mock trial. To the left, Oklahoma Supreme Court Justice Noma Gurich takes notes as she serves as the mock trial’s judge.
forensic science (14).jpg: Juliet Ignacio, Dove Science Academy student and “chief of police,” waits intensely for a verdict during the high school’s first mock trial.