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Paul Bunyan acquitted: Chief Justice presides over 5th grade mock trial

March 12, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — Even before he became Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, Richard A. Robinson relished the chance to preside over yearly mock trials where Hall School fifth-graders decided the fate of Paul Bunyan.

He’s done it numerous times. Only the verdict is left to chance during the scripted trial, but Robinson said the experience gives him a chance to show young people the human side of the judicial system.

“The days of the ivory tower are over,” said the seasoned judge who said his new title — he was named Chief Justice in May 2018 — is no reason to stop his participation. “People don’t get to interact with their government. It is important, especially for younger children to understand (their) roles as citizens. To have a dialogue between people with different ideas is really critical. I’m doing my part.”

On Tuesday, City Hall’s austere council chambers served as the courtroom, with prosecutors to the left, defense attorneys to the right and a curious blue Ox sitting in the audience waiting to testify.

The annual event is aided by attorneys — members of Pullman and Comley’s Diversity Committee along with Yale New Haven Services volunteers — who mentor the students.

Trinity Williams, 10 years old and part of the defense team, said there is more to the experience than learning about Paul Bunyan, the fictitious lumberjack whose tree-chopping habit was accused of violating federal regulations and damaging the ecosystem.

“You learn that when you go to a courtroom, you look at both the judge and the jury,” Williams said.

The defense maintains that Bunyan’s lumber helped build homes and clear passages that led to more lakes and streams for wildlife.

“He helped people,” argued Almoatusem Derhim, 10, dressed in plaid and playing the role of the big guy himself.

Though it really wasn’t a courtroom, the students seemed to like the echo their voices made bouncing through the chambers and the large American flag draped against the front wall.

Most of the pint-sized attorneys dressed the part in dark blazers and skirts or suits and ties.

The jury also took their roles seriously.

Aaliyah Marshall, 10, said her mom got called for jury duty once and didn’t much like it.

“She had to get up early and didn’t get picked,” Marshall said.

Chief Justice Robinson can relate. He has gotten jury duty summonses in the mail as well — from federal court — but has never been picked.

During the Tuesday morning proceeding, there were opening statements, closing arguments, sworn testimony and a few hardy “I objects” thrown in for good measure.

Two members of the class — Lucy Aguayza and Jaelynn Cordero — served as sketch artists.

Jennifer Willcox, vice president of legal services at Yale New Haven Health, said she was blown away by the confidence of the students who participated in the mock trial.

In the end, the jury found that Paul and his Ox were not negligent by a unanimous vote.

Then it was time to put Chief Justice Robinson on the hot seat with some personal questions.

Robinson was willing to share with the students that his favorite flavor ice cream is Haagen-Daz Pineapple Coconut. The Fairfield county native who now spends his working days in Hartford where Red Sox and Patriots rule would not reveal his favorite sports teams.

He told them he is married and his wife is a fifth-degree black belt to his fourth-degree.

A Stamford native, Robinson now lives in Stratford. He has a bachelor’s degree from UConn and a law degree from West Virginia University School. He was appointed as a judge of the Connecticut Appellate Court in 2007, and a justice of the Supreme Court in 2013. He became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in May 2018. He is the first black male to hold that title in the state.