One student, Paige Munn, even found herself sitting second chair in a murder trial that later resulted in a guilty verdict.
“I hope they benefit half as much by being here as we do from having them here,” said Gen. Weirich. “They provide invaluable assistance to our office, to the public we serve and to the justice system.”
Daniel M. Schaffzin, assistant professor of law and director of experiential learning at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, said the externship offers students an opportunity to learn from some of the most skilled prosecutors in the country.
“Building on years of partnership, the Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office and the University of Memphis School of Law have created a course that allows the Honors Externs to live the life of a prosecutor,” Prof. Schaffzin said. “The law school is indebted to Gen. Weirich and her remarkable team of prosecutors for their continued collaboration with and devotion to Memphis Law.”
He said the combination of supervised practice and classroom training – also at 201 Poplar - has created an environment that is “experiential learning at its absolute finest.”
The externs – Munn, Kevin Brown, Christopher McKnight, Brad Reasonover and Megan Welton – recently took turns working on their direct examination skills in simulated preliminary hearings with prosecutors as their tutors and Memphis Police Department Vice Squad officers as their witnesses. Police Lt. Chris Moffatt of the Organized Crime Unit said the Vice Squad officers also found the program beneficial.
“Most law-student training usually comes from mock trials where law students play the part of witnesses and ‘testify’ about made-up facts,” said assistant district attorney Steve Jones, the DA’s training director who served as judge in the courtroom exercise. “This was an incredible exercise because the students got to question real police officers about their actual cases.”
The setting was a General Sessions Criminal Court courtroom after work hours and the facts were drawn from actual cases involving prostitution and criminal simulation. Playing the role of defense attorneys were prosecutor Austin Scofield and Deputy Dist. Atty. Gen. Jennifer Nichols, an adjunct professor whose “classroom” is the Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar.
Deputy D. A. Nichol’s externship seminar course complements the students’ hands-on externship by addressing procedural, ethical and practical issues that prosecutors face.
“My goal is two-fold,” said Nichols. “Number one, don’t bore the externs and, number two, show them what we do in a realistic way.”
That has meant practicing in a courtroom setting with real officers or learning how to “pretrial” a witness, such as they did when Nichols had them participate in pretrial interviews with the state’s star witness – veteran police detective Tony Mullins – in a triple-murder case.
The students also reviewed actual crime-scene photos, diagrams and other evidence that would be used in the trial. (The defendant later was convicted as charged and was given three death sentences.)
Nichols also took the externs on a field trip, two blocks away at the offices of the Ballin Law Firm, to hear a defense perspective on what makes a good prosecutor.
“It’s hard to lecture about ‘a day in the life of an ADA’ since our days are filled with the unexpected,” added Nichols, noting that the small class size gives her more flexibility in arranging tasks for the students. “The best I can do is to try to show them different aspects of the job.”
Megan Welton, one of the externs, said the program serves as an important bridge between the classroom and the courtroom.
“Law school teaches its students issue spotting, procedural and evidentiary rules, and how to analyze cases,” Welton said. “However a gap exists between what is learned in law school and real-world practice. The Honors Prosecution Externship at the Shelby County DA’s Office provided all of us externs with an opportunity to gain practical experience with the support and guidance of supervising attorneys.”