TIFFIN - When Mindy Wells changed her plea to guilty yesterday in the Seneca County Common Pleas Court, she did so in front of dozens of students in a room festooned with college banners.
Judge Steve Shuff moved his courtroom yesterday afternoon to the great hall of Heidelberg College to give students easier access to the workings of the legal system. The event was an effort by the college to commemorate Constitution Day, the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.
"This allows the students to see what happens," Judge Shuff said during a break in which he took questions from the students. "These are real live people with real-life problems."
And that was one of the points of holding court at the college, said Rita Barga, a professor who helped organize the event. Other than helping the college mark Constitution Day, which is mandated by the federal education department for schools that receive federal money, organizers hoped the session would give students a more realistic feel for the legal system than they may get from television court dramas such as Law & Order.
For at least two students, that's exactly what happened.
"Sitting in there helped me out," said Monica Groot, 18, a freshman from Sandusky. "You see all those TV shows, but it's different in person."
Sophomore Todd Post, 20, of Celina, Ohio, agreed. "I'm used to watching it on TV."
But he had figured on at least a few differences from television.
"Those are based on real life, some of them, but this is what's happening in Ohio right now."
Ms. Wells, a 24-year-old Bucyrus mother of three, pleaded guilty to possession of crack cocaine, a fifth-degree felony. The judge sentenced her to 11 months in prison. Her case, one of several to move through the court yesterday, proved educational on more than one level for some of the students, who had never seen a courtroom and hadn't considered that a mother of young children might use illegal drugs.
"I was shocked - she finished four years of college and has three kids," Mr. Post said.
"I was very surprised to hear she had three children and a husband, and she did drugs," Ms. Groot said.
For Ms. Groot, simply seeing defendants in person seemed odd. "It was weird to be in the same room with people who commit crimes," she said.
Both students enjoyed watching the action in person.
"I'm here to learn, but that's something I didn't think I'd sit through," Ms. Groot said.
Mrs. Barga was pleased with how many students attended, even if she had to tell at least two men to doff their baseball caps while court was in session.
"Wonderful turnout," she said during a midafternoon break. "I was really glad to see so many come."
And she hopes at least one lesson will stick with the students: "To understand that everything is public. We don't do anything in secret, and it's done in a manner according to the law."
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