Penn State Law student argues jury trial in Centre County Court

Penn State Law Professors Richard Settgast and Casey McClain and third-year student Alaina Dickens Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Third-year Penn State Law student Alaina Dickens argued her first jury trial this week, defending her client, charged with driving under the influence and simple assault, in the Centre County Courthouse, Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. The unique opportunity is part of her experience as a member of Penn State Law’s Indigent Criminal Justice Practicum.

Preparation for the case began in September, when the defendant first came to the Public Defender’s Office, and Dickens worked on his case from the initial interview.

To zealously defend her client, Dickens immersed herself in the case. She spent the weekend before the trial in Penn State Law’s Apfelbaum Courtroom with Centre County Public Defenders and Penn State Law Adjunct Professors Casey McClain and Richard Settgast and four other Penn State Law students playing the parts of judge, witnesses and opposing attorneys.

“This is a real case with real jurors and a real judge,” McClain said at the dry run. “We’re practicing because Alaina has to be able to paint a picture, grounded in fact and supported by law to persuade a jury.”

This is the first time a student enrolled in the practicum has tried a case in front of a jury. McClain says this is a rare occurrence in any law school.

“This is great experience for Alaina,” he said. “She must prepare her argument, her theory of the case, and the questions she wants to ask, and prepare her client for testifying. We work as a team, but Alaina is the one who directs the case and argues the entire trial from opening to closing arguments.”

The practicum has three students, and, while they are all qualified and wanted to try a case in front of a jury, Dickens drew the “short straw” in a random drawing.

The practicum provides students with the opportunity to represent indigent criminal defendants accused of misdemeanor offenses in the Centre County Court of Common Pleas under the supervision of an attorney from the Centre County Public Defender Office. Under the direction of McClain and Settgast, students work as a defense litigation attorney learning litigation, negotiation and advocacy skills. This is a hands-on experience where students conduct interviews of their clients and work to best represent the client through all phases of the criminal justice process.

This past summer, Dickens completed an internship in the San Diego Public Defenders office, and, for the fall semester, she is part of the practicum, where she also has represented clients at preliminary hearings and negotiated plea bargains.

“I’m nervous; I’m excited, but I feel challenged,” she said a few days before the trial. “I’m sure I want to do criminal defense, so this is such valuable experience.”

However, on Monday morning, as the assistant district attorney began giving her opening statement, nerves crept over her.

“I could feel my hands shaking as she was giving her side of the facts,” she said. “But once it was my turn, my nerves subsided as I got into a rhythm.”

Settgast and McClain stressed that, in the Public Defender’s Office, the attorneys take the case, no matter what the circumstances. Public defenders don’t choose their clients and cases; they must represent whoever walks through the door needing legal assistance, even if the facts aren’t favorable.

Aside from these challenges, Dickens explained her personal challenge was getting the client to trust her representation of him. By communicating with the client regularly and educating him on all possible outcomes, she quickly developed a rapport and gained the client’s trust. So much so, that right before the trial, he offered a bit of praise.

“He told me no matter what happens, he was proud of me,” Dickens said.

“Alaina did a fantastic job and we are very proud of the work she put in,” said Settgast. “She was this person’s attorney and only looked to Casey and me for guidance.”

McClain agreed with Settgast, and also praised Dickins for her preparation and performance.

“I’m very proud of Alaina and the rest of the students,” he said. “They all worked as a team to help Alaina prepare. This is a shared experience to make all of us better lawyers. Although the client was found guilty, Alaina gave him a chance. She did the best she could with a terrible set of facts. Hopefully the experience, the preparation, will form the base of a long and prosperous career as a defense lawyer for Alaina.”

Professor Casey McClain instructs Alaina Dickens on how best to present facts to a jury. Credit: Mary Szmolko / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 22, 2015