As the law students questioned witnesses during the mock trial — regarding a fictitious accident in which a delivery driver struck a pedestrian — Hans Kohene, Clarence Cross Brazelton and Timothy Kelly sat in the jury box, studiously taking notes.
None of the men has ever been on a jury, although Kohene and Kelly have been convicted of crimes. So they leapt at the chance to look at the justice system from "the other side" and better understand the thoughts of judges, attorneys and jurors.
For Ujamaa Place, a St. Paul organization that works to give black men the skills to thrive in life, and Mitchell Hamline School of Law, located in the city's Summit-University neighborhood, deepening a mock trial jury pool is just one piece of a new partnership designed to give "Ujamaa Men" and law students better understanding.
And, say officials with both organizations, it could possibly forge new ways to expand opportunity and access.
"This is a chance to look at this law school and have the community say, 'This is a resource for us,' " said Kedar Hickman, Ujamaa's chief operations officer.
Mark Gordon, president and dean of the law school, said, "Law schools teach how to argue, debate, persuade, but not necessarily to listen. We thought: Wouldn't it be great to hear them?"
Tabbed "The Listening Project," the joint effort was started months ago as a way to foster empathy and understanding among people whose lives often intersect only after someone gets arrested. The listening and brainstorming gave law student Craig Schley an idea: Put Ujamaa men on mock trial juries as a way to add new life perspectives to a mock jury pool that has been predominantly white and retired.
"It just seemed natural," Schley, a Manhattan native, said of tapping Ujamaa Place for jurors. "As lawyers, we are going to have to advocate for all kinds of people, from all backgrounds. I hope this is a vehicle for Ujamaa Place to have a better understanding of the law, and for students to gain a better understanding of the community they serve."
Officials say they are interested in taking their partnership further — perhaps starting a drop-in legal clinic at the law school, said Hickman. Perhaps creating a mentoring program that leads to Ujamaa men considering careers in the legal system, said Gordon.
U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, whom Gordon reached out to for advice on outreach efforts after the shooting death last year of Philando Castile, called the partnership "an outstanding collaboration" that gives law students "an opportunity to broaden their horizons and really become what lawyers are supposed to be about."
Davis said that when he taught at the University of Minnesota law school, he reminded his students to understand why they wanted to become lawyers: to help people. Somewhere along the way, he said, law school knocks that out of some.
"There is nothing worse than having a freshly minted lawyer coming out and thinking they know everything and talking down to people, whether they are white, brown, yellow or whatever," Davis said. "Mitchell Hamline has been on the forefront of making sure lawyers come out well trained and have an understanding of the communities they go into."
Increased understanding goes both ways.
A decade ago, an all-white jury found Lamont Wilson guilty of a drug offense. A jury convicted Kohene of a firearms offense. On Friday, both men said serving on mock juries has helped them better appreciate the jury's role — and its goals for truth and fairness.
"I've been on the other side, wondering 'How do they make their decisions? Guilty or not guilty?' " Kohene said. "Seeing this, I know it's way more complicated than I thought."
Such as, he admitted, paying attention to the evidence and not to the lawyers or witnesses trying to "persuade you."
Wilson said he thought his trial was fair. But, after learning more about what judges and lawyers expect from jurors, he's even more confident in the process.
"I see people better," he said. "It gives me hope that things can get better."