It was a lot like television, said Naomi Harrell. The judges wore black robes. The lawyers wore three-piece suits and the defendants wore nervous expressions. But after her first day in court, the 11-year-old's verdict was that real life is not as well organized as the video version.
"It's sort of like Perry Mason except there you know what happens in the end," said Harrell after watching parts of four trials at the Arlington County Court House. "Here we'll never find out."
Harrell was one of 28 sixth graders from Arlington's Jamestown Elementary School who spent a morning observing the county's legal system this week. The students were participating in a year-old program sponsored by the Lawyers Wives of Arlington.
"There are a lot of these programs on the high school or junior high level," said Jef Dolan, one of three Wives who escorted the students through the court house. "But by that time many kids have already been in trouble."
"We don't want to frighten them as much as make them aware of court procedings," said Dolan. But a certain element of fear seems to be part of the program.
"We do put children in jail," said Judge Berton V. Kramer, sitting in the juvenile and domestic relations court. "When we get kids who do real bad thins and they won't stop . . . At your age all you have to worry about is reform school."
Juvenile court was the first stop on the tour. After the students witnessed a few teen-agers' traffic cases, they were escorted by police officer Jeff Steger to district criminal court. There they sat through 15 minutes of judicial procedures, most involved with determining whether a defendant was sufficiently indigent to qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. In circuit court, the students saw one county prisoner refused a lower bond and a woman accused of stealing credit cards waive her right to a jury trial. Some of the sixth graders were yawning.
The highlight of the tour was the county jail. While deputy sheriff Charles Dean explained how everything worked, most of the students sneaked looks at four prisoners in the preliminary lockup cells.
"It's like looking at animals in the zoo," said Daryl Day with a shudder.
"I wish you could see the letters that come in from the classes," said Betty Ferrari after the tour. "One said, 'I enjoyed it very much but I don't want to come back anymore.'"